NHL Playoff Predictions- Round 1

Here are some vague guesses for round 1 of this year’s Stanley Cup tournament. I am really liking the new playoff format, as there are some really, really good matchups in the first round. A couple of them could end up being blood baths, and that is all that NHL fans can ask for. There is nothing better than the first round, in my mind, where upsets happen, and teams who move on get beat up. It’s an exciting time to be a hockey fan.

crystallWestern Conference

Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars

  • This has quickly become the trendy upset pick, with a lot of people choosing the Stars to take down the hot-starting Ducks, who traditionally fade over the course of the season.
  • Ducks are top heavy. Not much beyond the Getzlaf-Perry line.
  • Anaheim seems to have endless stud goalies, so whether they end up with Andersson, Hiller, or Gibson, they are in good shape.
  • Love, love, love the combo of Benn and Seguin in Dallas. They will be good together for a long time.
  • Surprising depth on the Stars. They are pretty underrated across the board.

Prediction: Stars in 7. I’m going with the trends here.

Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild

wild

  • Hugely surprising year for the Avs. Are they ready to make the next step?
  • Biggest question in Colorado is that unknown D corps. Can they stop a consistent Wild team?
  • Huge disadvantage for the Wild in net. Bryzgalov is the ultimate wild card here. He could be great. He could be awful.
  • Big bonus for the Wild: their D is very strong, led by Ryan Suter. He will be a difference maker.
  • I’m smelling upset here.

Prediction: Wild in 6. Avalanche not ready to be great just yet.

San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings

kings

  • This would be a worthy Western Conference Final matchup.
  • It’s too bad one of these teams has to go home, they are both Cup contenders. But that’s the beauty of the new playoff format.
  • Great rivalry. This is one of those series that will be an all out war. It’s going to go 7, no matter who wins. Winning team will be battered and bruised by the time they get to the 2nd round.
  • Biggest advantage is for the Kings in net, with Quick over the under-appreciated, but inconsistent Antti Niemi.

Prediction: Kings in 7. Too deep. Too relentless. Sharks love to choke. 

St.Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks

st-louis-blues-logo

  • Ugly 6-game losing streak for the Blues leading into the playoffs.
  • Ryan Miller has come back to earth after hot start after his trade to St. Louis.
  • Battle of injured teams. A lot of banged-up guys on both teams. Hawks are getting Kane and Toews back, the Blues should get Backes and Oshie back. Big difference if they are fully healthy.
  • Another bruising series. The Blues play mean, and I wonder if the Hawks have enough to fight back with.
  • It’s so hard to repeat as champs in this league.

Prediction: Blues in 7. I think they can turn it around. They are just infinitely deep and tough to play against. 

 

Eastern Conference

Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings

bruins

  • 23rd straight year the Wings are in the dance. Incredible.
  • Important injuries on the Red Wings, including Zetterberg, who won’t be back. Datsyuk always seems to be banged up now.
  • Bruins are a monstrous team. They can score, defend, and beat you up. Wings can’t match them in any department.

Prediction: Bruins in 5

 

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

pens

  • Maybe the most unappealing first round matchup?
  • Constant worry over Fleury in the Pens net. Bobrovsky is an advantage for Columbus.
  • Columbus has only been to the playoffs once before, and they were swept. Going against a team that can explode offensively.
  • Will Malkin be back?
  • Crosby has had an incredible season, and there is no reason to believe that he won’t continue it in the playoffs.

Prediction: Penguins in 7. I really want to take the Jackets in an upset, but they just aren’t there yet. If Malkin is back, they take it. 

Montreal Canadiens vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

  • The biggest coin flip of the first round. Both teams are evenly matched.
  • Biggest impact is Ben Bishop’s injury. Huge downgrade to have Anders Lindback in net.
  • Carey Price has had a good year. He can/will be a difference maker.
  • Love the young guns of the Bolts. Stamkos, Palat, Johnson, Callahan.
  • Big year from Victor Hedman, largely not discussed over the course of the year. Big breakout for him.

Prediction: Lightning in 6. I feel the Habs will disappoint, and not give Price enough support. 

New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers

rangers

  • Another great rivalry, both teams are real contenders coming off a terrible start to the season.
  • Huge plus having Lundqvist over Mason in net.
  • Will be a tough series, both teams can hit and mix it up. Will be a bruiser of a series.
  • Not terribly sold on the Flyers D. Not that the Rangers set the world on fire on offense, but there is enough depth to do some damage.

Prediction: Rangers in 6. 

 

There we have it. Now we can sit back and enjoy the games, as they start tomorrow night. NHL playoffs are the best time of year, after the long, grueling season. Time to get to the real games!

 

 

End of Season NHL Thoughts

With the year coming to an end in the National Hockey League tomorrow, I figured I would jot down a few thoughts I’ve had on the season that is wrapping up. It has had a ton of interesting stories, none being bigger than the Olympics (which really isn’t about the NHL, but at the same time, really is).

Hahah, not exactly a new map. Let's pretend it doesn't have the Thrashers on there.

Hahah, not exactly a new map. Let’s pretend it doesn’t have the Thrashers on there.

  • Congrats to the Bruins on winning the President’s Trophy. They are definitely the class of the East, and have been all season. It is really tough to pick anyone but them to make it out of the East to the Stanley Cup Finals.
  • Could the team to challenge the Bruins be the Flyers? This season was a pretty incredible comeback from what was a terrible beginning to the year, for a team that always seems to be involved in some turmoil.
  • About the Flyers, I am shocked that Steve Mason has led them to the playoffs and regained some of his form.
  • Interesting that the two teams who really wanted to move East, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Detroit Red Wings, both made the playoffs in their new conference. The team moving the other way, the Winnipeg Jets, did not.
  • Strange, but not surprising, that there will only be one Canadian team in the playoffs.
  • The Edmonton Oilers have to be the worst team in the league this year. The other miserable franchises, the Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers, were not expected to be anywhere close to good, and their expectations were to be bottom feeders. The Oilers often showed no effort or care, and this is why they are below teams like the Calgary Flames.
  • Great to see Sidney Crosby healthy and playing a full season. He has of course, shown what he can do, leading the league in points by a mile and probably on his way to the Hart Trophy as well.
  • Tough call to choose a Norris (best defenceman) Award. Weber, Chara, Keith, Pietrangelo, Vlasic, Doughty, Karlsson, are all worthy candidates.
  • I picked the Blues and Rangers to make the Finals at the start of the year. They are both in the dance, so I guess there is a shot that I’m right?
  • Should we be worried about the Blues, and their end of the season slump? It is poor timing on their part, but it just seems like they are too deep a team to have another early exit.
  • It seems impossible to decide who will come out of the West. Seems like every team who is in the playoffs has a legitimate shot.
  • Do the Oilers need to look at the Avalanche as a model of how to rebuild quickly and successfully? Part of the Avs getting to where they are was from making big trades. Something that doesn’t happen in Edmonton.
  • I have to give it to the Flames. They over-achieved purely based on heart.
  • Breakout season from Mark Giordano. An excellent defender in Calgary. And worthy of being their captain. Exploded offensively, unfortunately he missed some time with injuries, or he would be in the Norris conversation.
  • I have been ranting for years to friends about Alex Ovechkin being overrated and generally terrible when it comes to everything hockey that is not scoring goals. His league worst plus/minus and obviously giving up on plays is making him look really bad. He will never be a defensive specialist, but he is a poor leader, and the ways in which he coasts when not in the attacking zone is pretty embarrassing. Sure, the guy can score, but would anyone choose him to build their team around? When there are so many quality, all-around players out there? I doubt it anymore.
  • Countdown to the Penguins falling flat in the playoffs begins very soon.
  • Thank god the Islanders are up for sale. They need a change, and it begins with the owner. It is sad to watch so many bad things happen to one franchise. Poor choices mixed with bad luck equals another pathetic year on Long Island. Sad.
  • How crazy good were the rookies this year? MacKinnon, Palat, Johnson, Maata. Impressive.
  • What happened to Martin St. Louis in New York? Wonder if he regrets wanting out of Tampa, and not getting to play with Steven Stamkos anymore. Stamkos is one of the best, and makes everyone around him better.
  • The Lightning had better hope that Ben Bishop can play in the playoffs. He has been a revelation. And they are done without him, I think. Although the Canadiens aren’t the toughest first round match up.
  • Love Ryan Callahan in Tampa. Hope they get to keep him. Good all around player, solid leader.
  • Tuuka Rask for Vezina.
  • Enough with the outdoor games. If you want to keep doing it, make it one per year. It seemed like they kept coming, and like nobody cared. The Heritage Classic in Vancouver was a sham, being indoors. Feel bad for the fans who thought they were getting something special.
  • Incredible that the Red Wings have now made the playoffs for 23 straight years. Seems impossible.
  • I’m bored of shootouts. I’m sure the New Jersey Devils are as well, being the worst ever at them.
  • How many more career points would Jaromir Jagr have if he hadn’t gone to the KHL for those three years? You could probably pencil him in for an extra 160-200 points. Amazing career.
  • Goodbye, Teemu Selanne. You were always fun.
  • Is it fair that the Anaheim Ducks have 3 quality starting goalies? And they traded another of them, so they had 4 at one point. That is smart drafting.

Enough of this regular season business, let’s get the playoffs going! It’s always an exciting time of year, in what is the most gruelling tournament to win a championship in any of the major sports.

Eating Boston: Cask n’ Flagon

Part of the Boston experience is so uniquely intertwined with the Boston Red Sox experience. You need to try and take it all in, in one of the cities that truly is a baseball-first place. In a massive market like Boston, there are plenty of sporting options. The Patriots, Celtics, Bruins, Revolution, all take their draws from the citizens of the city.

But no draw compares to the popularity of the Red Sox.

Based on this, the Fenway area of Boston is one that must be visited when in town. A big part of this, are the sports bars that surround the legendary Fenway Park, the largest being the Cask n’ Flagon.

caskThe Cask n’ Flagon does what sports bars are supposed to do. It offers a wide selection of bar food, and a really strong list of beers to keep you entertained while the game is on the multitude of TVs placed around the bar.

First, a couple of negatives from my trip there.

  • The lines are really long on game days. Be aware of that if you plan to go when the Sox are playing at home. I was there when they were on the road, so it wasn’t an issue.
  • The TVs aren’t as big as they should have, or could have been. For a bar that thrives on sports, there should be some monster screens in there, in my opinion.
  • The staff couldn’t seem to figure out how to get the Red Sox game on. Seriously? The place was packed with people, there specifically to watch the game. And it took them nearly an inning to figure out which channel it was on, and how to get their TVs to the right place.
  • We ordered some wings. They forgot to place that order. After watching tables around us get the food they ordered, and an hour having passed, we finally asked about them. Our waiter was very apologetic, and we did get our wings. On the house. With some extra wings on there. This is excellent service, and they more than corrected their mistake.

Some of the good.

  • They fixed their mistake, and not having to pay for the wings was an added bonus.
  • The wings were actually incredibly delicious and filling.
  • Very good beer selection, especially for a sports bar. And quite reasonably priced.
  • Huge establishment, with tons of seating to help deal with their game day crowds.
  • A fairly attentive staff, definitely friendly.

The Cask n’ Flagon does not merit a special trip or anything, but if you are in the area, it is a good, sports-centric place to pop in for a beer and a snack, maybe before or after a game, or when the Sox are on the road and you want to watch the game surrounded by their fans.

Eating Boston: Cheers

Of course, as a tourist in Boston, you want to go where everybody knows your name.

As one of the main spots on the tourist trail in the city, it speaks volumes about the lasting impression that the TV series Cheers had on people. It was one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, and people still love it.

cheersThe exteriors of the show are based on the Bull and Finch pub in the Boston Back Bay area, and walking up to it, it looks exactly as it did on the TV show. The insides, however, are not the same. Even though the Bull and Finch has officially changed its name to Cheers, it is not the same bar when you walk inside, but you should know that before going in. There is a replica bar elsewhere in the city. This is just the place that served as the inspiration for the show. Walking down the stairs, you hear the theme song to the show. Not just in your head, but actually. They have it playing constantly down the stairs, so you definitely know where you are.

It is still a really good bar, though. Of course, we sat up at the bar, next to the spot that has been deemed “Norm’s spot.” There is a nice selection of local beers here, along with some regular American classics that you see everywhere else. The food is pretty basic, all named after characters from the show, but it tastes good. It is definitely your average bar fare, as Cheers was supposed to be the average American bar.

cheers2There is a good atmosphere inside the place, which is much smaller than I remember it being from a previous trip to Boston. There is a good crowd (mainly tourists, of course), and it really is a good place to go for a pint or two after work, or after a day of touring around the city. The prices are fair, and thankfully not over-inflated knowing that the majority if the patronage is from out of town and looking to have a drink at a place made so famous by the long running TV series.

The staff was very friendly, and efficient. Our bartender was fast at refilling our drinks, and engaging in regular bar conversation.

Overall, Cheers is a good place to go, and for fans of the show, you definitely need to stop in and have a beer.

At the Ballpark: Fenway Park (Boston Red Sox)

For baseball diamonds, Fenway Park was always the ultimate destination. It was the one place I had to see games, no matter what. It was a bucket list item. Fenway is home to the Boston Red Sox, my favorite baseball team, the team I have cheered with for years, being fortunate enough to watch them through three glorious World Series runs.

And it did not disappoint.

On the streets of Boston, Fenway is nestled in there, almost unnoticeable until you are standing right in front of it. It is not a gargantuan behemoth of engineering placed far away from the city, surrounded by parking lots and a couple of bars. It is right in the heart of it all, lined by the famous Yawkey Way and Lansdowne Street, which is chock full of bars and restaurants, all geared towards the Red Sox crowd. From the outside, you see the green that has been made so famous by the ancient stadium (going on year 102 now).

And you simply can’t wait to get inside.

I took the ballpark tour, because, come on, this is Fenway. The tour was good, and the guide was an excellent source of knowledge, telling stories about the park and about the teams that had played there.

monsterFirst walking into the stands behind home plate, you have arrived. You stare out at the field, you look at the Green Monster in left field. You see Pesky’s Pole out in right, the famous scoreboard on the Monster, the current AL East standings, the signs for W.B. Mason. It is all so iconic, and it takes a moment to stand there, take it all in, take your pictures.

The tour was good, taking us to some of the most memorable and historic parts of the park. The ancient stands, the bleachers and the lonely red seat (which denotes the longest home run hit inside Fenway, by none other than Ted Williams), the press box, the outdoor patio high above left field, the Red Sox museum, and of course, the seats on top of the Green Monster, which have become the most coveted tickets in all of baseball.

The only disappointing thing about the tour was that we didn’t go to the locker rooms, or onto the field. This is understandable, as it was the day before Opening Day, but still…to stand on the shale of Fenway would have been something incredible. For $17, the tour was a good way to spend a little over an our, in the baseball cathedral that is this park.

My initial impression, walking up that ramp to see the field for the first time, was that this park is small! Fenway is intimate, and this only adds to the lustre of the place. It is not a mega-stadium that sits fifty-some-thousand. It is a small place, where fans gather to cheer for their beloved Sox. The beautiful thing about the smallness of the park, is that there is not a bad seat in the house. Wherever you are, even though it may seem like miles away from home plate, you still get a really strong view of the game. That is, of course, unless you are stuck with one of the obstructed view seats, but you would know that going into it.

 

The view from the back of the stadium.

The view from the back of the stadium. (not my photo)

The seats: I was lucky enough to be in Boston for Opening Day 2014, where the champs raised their banners and got their rings, celebrating an amazing season that culminated in an almost improbable World Series win last October. I will write a separate post on Opening Day itself, so for this one I will stick to the stadium. For Opening Day, we sat in the bleachers, section 62 (same section as the red seat), row 50 (actually the last row in the place). Tickets cost us $30 (we were lucky enough to buy them at face value before going to Boston, on StubHub before the game, those seats were going for close to $200- Opening Day!). Despite being as far from home plate as possible in right field, the seats were still great, and this speaks to how intimate the stadium is. There was a good view of the action on the field, and although you can’t call balls and strikes from that far away, it is still pretty awesome. You can soak in all the views from the bleachers, watch as balls ring off the Monster, and see the plays made in the infield with amazing clarity.

The seats, for being the bleachers, were pretty comfortable, and you are never too far from a beer stand, concession, or washroom. There is definitely a passionate fan base that sits in the bleachers, which gives the game more personality than it already has. I have never been to a sporting event where the fans are as knowledgeable as they were in Boston. They love baseball, and they LOVE baseball. It was amazing. No fair weather, just checking out a game because it sounds fun crowd here. The people of Boston live and breathe the Red Sox. I loved this.

Fenway_Park05The Monster: For the second home game of the season, of course we needed to sit on the Monster. This was a life goal, and both of us were pretty giddy to actually be able to get seats. Since we hadn’t initially planned on a second game, this one was more last minute. We paid $90 for standing room tickets on the Monster, for a night game on Saturday night. Even before getting there, we knew it would be worth it. And we were not disappointed.

There is no better place to watch a game than from the Monster seats. Standing room, while it sounds like a massive inconvenience, was actually kind of perfect. It gives you the chance to move around (which was great, considering it was bone chillingly cold that night). There are under 300 seats and standing spots on the Monster, so it is like a little community up there. There are two concessions just for the Monster people, with beers and Monster dogs (definitely better than the Fenway Franks!), and very close access to a bathroom. For those going for standing room, get there earlier than you normally might, claim your spot, and enjoy. Plus, if you are on the Monster, you really need to get there for batting practice, as the odds of snagging a home run ball are pretty good. All standing room seats are lined up against a bar, where you can lean, and rest your food and drinks. It makes the whole standing thing much more comfortable, as you don’t have to stand awkwardly in one position for hours at a time.

On the Monster, there were some of the nicest, and well-educated, fans I had been around. We made friends with all of the people in our standing section, and looked out for one another by saving spots when they would have to go to the washroom, top up a beer, or need to walk to warm up. Out little piece of the Monster was a nice one, and the great people made this one of the most fun ball games I have ever been to.

The views from on top of the most famous wall in baseball are incredible. In the crisp, cool night of April baseball, under the lights of Fenway, you see it all. You are on top of the action, and even closer to it than I would have thought. You look down at the left fielder, you see the pitches clearly (which makes yelling at the umps easier), and you are literally on top of the action.

If you are planning on going to Fenway as a vacation, see a game from the Monster. Despite the steeper prices, you will not regret it. Apparently standing room tickets are normally about $60, which is well worth it. Plus, as it was freezing cold, and the game ended up going in to extra innings, we ended up with Monster seats for about half the game, as some who were not as prepared for the temperatures ended up leaving early. Since it was so frosty, we still ended up standing, but we had moved closer to the famed edge of the Monster, and it was glorious. Plus, it gave us the chance to sit if our legs were feeling tired.

Prices: It is not cheap to go to Fenway. But I’m sure there isn’t anybody out there who are hoping for a cheap night out by going there. Beers cost nearly $9 for a can, a Fenway Frank is $5 (they are not large), and a Monster Dog is $9 (but good!). The service is fast and friendly.

champsAtmosphere: Simply put, there is no better place to watch baseball than at Fenway Park. Period.

The combination of the team, the city, the fans, the knowledge, the history, and the ballpark all make Fenway THE place to see a game.

The surrounding area: Is there more famous streets that surround a ballpark? Yawkey Way is the place to be on game day. The bars are lined up around the block, and the street is jammed full of people, elbow-to-elbow. There is a buzz there that is unprecedented in my experience. I can’t even imagine it during the playoffs. There are plenty of options for food and drink before and after the game. Either get there early (most places were open at 8:30 AM for Opening Day), or be prepared to wait in line for a decent amount of time. It is cool, because everybody is there for the same reason: because they love baseball, and they love the Red Sox.

Final Comments: Having the opportunity to fly across the country to watch baseball is one that I am grateful for. Seeing a game at Fenway really was a dream come true, and getting to see two was just adding to the perfection. Leaving the park after the end of the 11th inning on Saturday night, I simply thought to myself that I can’t wait to go back.

The Bad Guys Won! (Book Review)

This book is a few years old already, so this review is definitely about a decade late, but I just finished reading it, and decided to write about it anyways.

First off, I love books about baseball. No other sport has created volumes of great work, created so many timeless stories, as baseball has. Perhaps it has something to do with the pace of the game being slower than other major sports, perhaps it is because it is easier to describe a one-on-one pitcher versus batter matchup, than it is to describe the actions of 22 men on a football field, or all of the insane action on the ice in a hockey game.

Books about baseball are the best. My bookshelves are packed with them. I find that I will read about anything, since the history of the game is so chalk full of great characters, heroes and villains, stories of the impossible, or improbable.

The story of the 1986 New York Mets is a great one. And it is put together extremely well in The Bad Guys Won!

badFrom the beginning, Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman paints the ’86 Mets as being a group of degenerate, hard-partying, self-obsessed, overly cocky jerks, who happen to, together, be one of the great teams in baseball history. People didn’t like them, other teams hated them, there was even a fair amount of self-loathing going on in the locker room. They knew that they were crazy, and they were mean to each other, but they won together.

Often, the ’86 World Series is remembered best because the Boston Red Sox blew the series, and Bill Buckner went down in infamy. The fact is, the Mets were the favorites to win it all (according to experts, and to the players themselves), and they were a team coming off a 108-win season, which is nothing to sneeze at. They were good. And they knew it.

Pearlman pieces together the season, including the lead-in years where the Mets were a league laughingstock. Smart moves, drafts, and trades created a team that was poised to dominate for years. With these Mets, and their hard living ways, they ended up having one great season, and then been broken apart, bit by bit. Some of their destruction was due to their own foolishness (just look at the nefarious careers of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry), others due to poor decisions after winning it all in ’86, and part was due to an organizational shift in philosophy, where ageing veterans were favored over youth. The fact is, the Mets were an incredible team, but they were only truly incredible once, which makes them that much more magical. Because it never happened again.

Rightfully, Pearlman laments the death of the fun ballplayer, of which the Mets had several. Today, people are trained on being politically correct, saying the right thing at the right time. The Mets were trash talking, rude, destructive. And they could back it all up on the field, by being a great team.

The narrative here is strung together well, and the book reads at a fast pace, much like the way the Mets lived. Pearlman doesn’t get too bogged down in unwanted details, instead focusing on what is important. He doesn’t spend too much time discussing the debauched evenings the Mets had (and I’m sure there would be a million more stories), as that can be saved for a Motley Crue biography. He talks about the partying, focuses on some of the major stories, and moves on. Even the cocaine problems that were rampant at the time are discussed, but not dwelt upon. If someone wanted to read a history of Darryl Strawberry and cocaine, there are plenty of other sources. The Bad Guys Won! is about the whole team, and for this, it is a very interesting read.

There is enough in here for baseball geeks to sink there teeth into, as there is no shortage of statistics or descriptions of games. For those who are not huge fans of the game, there is still much to savor here, mainly the rowdy off-field behavior and personalities of the players.

As a kid (I was 7 at the time), I remember these Mets, and I remember them winning that World Series. I thought Doc Gooden was the greatest pitcher even, and that Gary Carter was the best catcher I would ever see. Maybe I was partially right. Reading this book now, gave me insight into that team I never could have imagined as a kid, and I’m glad I did.

After reading The Bad Guys Won!, it is easy to wish for the athlete who spoke his mind, for the team that knew it was great, and was willing to tell the world about it.

But, at least for now, we are stuck with our heroes giving their tired cliches, trying not to offend anybody on the entire planet.

Makes us wish for those ’86 Mets again.

A great baseball read.

The Naturals (Book Review)

The first thing I noticed in looking for a cover image of Jennifer Lynn Barnes’ latest novel, The Naturals, is that there are a lot of really bad covers for this book. The version I read is fairly non-descript, something that suits the crime mystery novel inside of it. Alternate versions of the cover make the book look more teeny-bopper than it is, even though there is plenty of that.

naturalsThe Naturals is about a group of teens that are recruited by the FBI because of their special skills. Not super powers, thankfully, but simpler things, like lie detection, profiling, and ability with statistics. The kids are chosen and moved into a house near Washington, where they will be trained and eventually allowed to help the FBI solve cold cases- murders gone long unsolved by the Bureau.

Cassie joins the team, because she is tired of her ordinary 17-year-old life as a waitress, and maintains ideas that she can solve the unsolved murder of her mother, which happened five years before.

The novel is pretty squeaky-clean as far as YA goes, and it does little to push the boundaries in any of the areas that it dabbles in. This is good, in the sense that it is an easily recommendable read for almost any teen. You don’t need to worry about sex, drugs, swearing, and gore in this novel. Despite being about the hunt for a serial killer, The Naturals does not have the graphic violence that a novel like I Hunt Killers had.

There is an awkward, unnecessary, and fairly baseless love triangle that develops in the house, and really, it has very little to do with the story. It it far too predictable, from the moment Cassie walks into the house, and it does little to develop any of the characters, or push the plot in any direction or another. But, Barnes keeps it clean, and even though it is pretty much there only to appeal more to a female audience, it doesn’t do any real harm.

As for the mystery itself, it is pretty good. While being trained how to read crime scenes and files, Cassie and the FBI agents are thrown into the solving of a case that is eerily familiar to Cassie, as all the new victims bear a resemblance to her dead mother. And Cassie seems to be next on the list for the killer. This leads us on the chase for the new killer in town, before it is too late for his next victim, or to see if Cassie is his next victim. Barnes provides us with a few good hints along the way, and a couple of possibly killers, and does a pretty good job of keeping us guessing throughout the novel, as to who did it. I don’t know that the end was terribly satisfying, but at least I was kept guessing, which not all mysteries are able to do.

I think that The Naturals is an entertaining read, and it won’t take most readers long to plunge through the 308 pages of the book. It is not high-end literature, but it serves well as a relaxing book where we want to be taken on a fairly interesting journey to discover something bad.

Barnes has written a novel that has a fairly broad appeal. Despite having a female protagonist, and the aforementioned love story, boys might like this book as well because of the crimes, the idea of serial killers, the typically male characters, and the sultry character of Lia. As I said, for a crime novel, there is little that is offensive in here, to the point where there are some lines like, “…to figure out what the Hello Kitty went on the night before.” Case in point. Barnes took the time to ensure her novel wouldn’t write itself into a corner, and would be okay reading material for as many teens as possible.

There is nothing particularly special about The Naturals. Okay characters, pretty good story, solid mystery. But, overall, it is a pretty decent read.

Grasshopper Jungle (Book Review)

In his acknowledgements at the back of the book, Andrew Smith states that he began writing Grasshopper Jungle as though no one would ever read it. He had decided to give up publishing his work, until he was convinced halfway through the novel that this one should see the light of day as well.

grasshopper-jungleSmith has created another fun, fascinating read, but one that lacks a distinctive audience. Jungle is too old for most YA readers, and too young for most adult readers. The true audience for this novel falls somewhere in between. Even though I did enjoy the book, I would find it hard to recommend to any of my students, even the high school ones, because of the language and some of the material in the novel. And I will pretty much recommend anything to students. Sex, violence, swearing. It’s all fine. But endless discussion about sperm, a fair amount of sex (both human and insect), frequent discussion about erections, and a goodly amount of swearing, makes this one a tough sell for me to give to a teenager (not because they can’t handle the material, but because I don’t want to field the parent phone call about the book I gave their kid). At times I found myself wishing that he would have dropped some of the language and edited parts of the sexual discussions, because it was a fun read that I could have seen myself giving to several people. Or, going in the opposite direction and making it purely a book for adults. That way, he could have gone all out and not censored any of his ideas.

Grasshopper Jungle is basically about two friends living in a boring Iowa town. They skateboard and smoke cigarettes. Austin and Robby have been friends since forever. Robby is gay, and in love with Austin. Austin is not sure what he is, as he is in love with his girlfriend, Shann, and Robby as well. He is confused, as he states time and time again throughout the novel. Eventually, the end of the world comes to town, in the form of large, man-sized, praying mantises that only like to do two things: eat and breed. The friends must figure out the mystery of the events leading up to the infestation, how to try and defeat it, and how to survive it together.

I found this novel difficult to get into. I liked the story just fine, but it was the way it was written that was a bit of a struggle for me. The repetitive style that Smith writes in worked wonderfully well in Winger, but often became irritating in Jungle. It seemed like everything was going around in circles for the first 150 pages. But, when things get going, they really get going in the novel. Once the infestation begins, the novel is a fun, action-packed book that is pretty hard to put down. Once the gang of Shann, Austin, and Robby find Eden, it becomes very interesting, and the whole purpose of the novel falls into place.

Austin is obsessed with history, and spends hours each day writing and drawing the history of his own lives. As the novel progresses, we see how everyone is connected through their history, and this is the brilliance of an Andrew Smith novel. While it is about giant insects eating all the people of a town, it is also about those connections, and what keeps us together and tears us apart. The relationships developed over the course of the novel are strong, and we get to feel the plight that each of the characters are going through. We understand Shann’s anger, as the boy she loves may possibly be gay, and may be in love with his best friend. We understand that Austin is confused, and he is trying his best to deal with his sexual urges, his feelings for the people closest to him, and his place in the small world they have created for themselves.

Despite not adoring the style in which the novel was written, Smith gets the job done. The frustrating repetition of the start of the novel slowly fades away, and when it is used during the second half, it tends to serve a more understandable purpose.

The novel ends satisfyingly as well, which is rare with books that could be deemed as being YA. I will assume that this will not be the beginning of a series, as Smith is not traditionally a series writer. Because of this, the ending is something that readers can be very pleased with, as we are given a conclusion that satisfies the story created.

While Grasshopper Jungle is not as laugh-out-loud funny as Winger, it has a distinct cleverness to it that is often hard to resist. As Austin goes through his life, recording their history as they live it, we are drawn into the strange world of Ealing, Iowa, the unique lives of the people that live within it, and the way that we are all connected through the stories of our past.

2014 MLB Predictions

Even though I will surely regret trying to pick the standings for the upcoming season, I might as well give it a shot. Last year, I was way off in my bold prediction of a Washington Nationals vs. Kansas City Royals World Series. I guess there is no harm in trying again! Except for my inevitable hurt pride in being so wrong about things.

AL East

  1. Tampa Bay Rays
  2. Boston Red Sox
  3. Baltimore Orioles
  4. Toronto Blue Jays
  5. New York Yankees
  • raysAlways the most difficult division to pick, because there are three very good teams in here, and two others that have great teams on paper but have yet to deliver it on the field. It’s hard to argue with the Rays’ success over the past years.
  • So much went right for the Red Sox last year, it will be difficult to duplicate that. But, they made some smart, low-cost moves over the summer, and should very much be in contention again. I like these guys, because they are tough and scrappy.
  • Yes, I’m picking the Yankees for last place. That rotation is just a huge question mark for me, and that starting infield is brutal. One injury to their old men roaming the shale, and they’re done. Their outfield is definitely improved, but that is only three of nine positions. Brian McCann is an upgrade at catcher, however.
  • I thought about going with the Orioles to win this division, but they are always such a tease. Third is where they belong.
  • Those poor Jays. Even if they put together a year that is injury-free, they will have too tough a time getting past the other monsters in the division. Too many questions in the rotation, as well.

AL Central

  1. Detroit Tigers
  2. Kansas City Royals
  3. Cleveland Indians
  4. Chicago White Sox
  5. Minnesota Twins
  • tigersHard to pick against the pitching of the Tigers. They can basically roll out three aces in a row, and the rest of the rotation is pretty solid, as well. I think their bullpen is improved.
  • This year, the Royals start to put it together. After a few seasons of expectations, they started to get it together in the second half of last year. They keep it going. Definitely a team trending upwards.
  • The Indians put together something special last year, making it to the one-game playoff. I don’t think they can do it again, but they are another fun, scrappy team. Love what Francona has done there.

 

AL West

  1. Oakland A’s
  2. Texas Rangers
  3. Seattle Mariners
  4. LA Angels
  5. Houston Astros
  • a'sNot much changing at the top. The Rangers have still more firepower, but there is something about this team that is lacking over the past couple of years, and doesn’t seem to be fixed. It’s finish. They lack finish. Prince Fielder could have a huge year there, if he doesn’t wilt in the Texas sun.
  • The A’s are just consistent. They are a good team, even if they seem to lack good players.
  • Finally, an off-season where the Angles don’t overpay someone. Trout is incredible, but the aging lineup around him won’t do much to help him out.

 

NL East

  1. Washington Nationals
  2. Atlanta Braves
  3. NY Mets
  4. Philadelphia Phillies
  5. Miami Marlins
  • natsThe Mets will actually probably be the bottom of this division, because there is a lot to like about the young Marlins.
  • I feel that last year was a season-long mistake by the Nats. They are better than what they showed last year, after their success the year before. They pull it back together this year.
  • Is it just me, or does the Phillies just seem like a collection of dinosaurs at this point?

 

NL Central

  1. St. Louis Cardinals
  2. Pittsburgh Pirates
  3. Cincinnati Reds
  4. Milwaukee Brewers
  5. Chicago Cubs
  • cardsShould be the most interesting division race again this year.
  • Impossible to bet against the always-consistent Cardinals. That rotation is excellent, arguably the best in the NL.
  • I think the Pirates contend again. They had players last year, on their miracle run, that had off-years. If they get it going as well, they can be good. Exciting team to watch, as well.
  • The Reds just kind of stay the same. Pretty good. Not excellent.

 

NL West

  1. LA Dodgers
  2. Arizona Diamondbacks
  3. San Francisco Giants
  4. San Diego Padres
  5. Colorado Rockies
  • dodgersThat LA payroll is crazy. As is their roster. Even with the inevitable injuries, they have bought the depth to stay competitive. Another very good stable of pitchers. Seems like they have a dozen starters to choose from.
  • Arizona is building, and this division always seems to have tons of movement in it.
  • The Giants are usually good every second year, and this would be their year again. Don’t count them out, but I feel there are a few too many gaps to oust the Dodgers here.

 

AL Wild Cards: Red Sox, Royals

NL Wild Cards: Braves, Pirates

AL Champion: A’s

NL Champion: Nationals

World Series Champion: Nationals