The offering from the Premier Crossword by Frank Longo this week is titled "Central Zoo" and I immediately suspected that Frank had hidden various animals in the puzzle's long theme answers. My suspicions were confirmed when a toad appeared in the dead-center of the first theme entry. I'm guessing that it must be some kind of rare, exotic toad to be in a zoo, because the woods in back of my house are crawling with the critters, but be that as it may, I was on to the theme very early on and that is usually pretty helpful. Even so, Frank apparently felt the need to put an explanation of the theme right in the middle of the grid, which was thoughtful if not especially helpful. In the end, the zoo is populated thus:
23a - COMING TO A DEAD END (Arriving where there's no outlet)
30a - GET A GRIP ON YOURSELF ("Calm down!")
42a - STELLA MARIS (One of the Blessed Virgin's titles)
58a - STANDING ORDER (Instruction in force indefinitely)
68a - ANIMALS (They're hidden in the centers of this puzzle's eight longest answers)
80a - FREEZE BRANDED (Marked with a very cold iron, as cattle)
95a - UP UP AND AWAY (Shout just before flying)
104a-GOOD WILL AMBASSADOR (Celebrity advocate for UNESCO)
118a-JAPANESE ALPHABET (Hiragana or katakana, in a sense)
The theme by itself didn't exactly blow me away with its cleverness, but Frank's execution in the grid is a thing of beauty. Every long answer has the same number of letters as its corresponding symmetrical opposite, which you would expect, but the names of the animals hidden in the exact center of the answers are also of the same length as the corresponding mate. I'm no expert on puzzle construction, but it seems to me that those constraints would make filling the grid pretty difficult, so major props for pulling that off.
The missteps that are apparent at the top of the grid are just me showing off my carelessness and/or ignorance and were easily fixed, but that mess in the bottom right corner is evidence of a real struggle. My main problem was wanting "Faith forsaker" (91d) to be "agnostic"; The crosswords quickly fixed the first part but I had to re-work the ending,and the intervening theme answer was no help whatsoever as "hiragana" and "katakana" were totally (and literally) foreign to me. I managed to piece it all together, but not without some heartburn. Still, "all's well that ends well".
The last letter I entered was mostly a coin-toss, as I was uncertain if a "small monastery" (97a) ended in an "i" or a "y", and the gem mineral (83d) presented the same question. I finally decided that the "Y" looked right for both words and I avoided finishing with an error.
It's Memorial Day weekend and far too nice to stay inside, so I'll leave you with this:
Or maybe this is a better choice - I'll let you decide: