AL West: Angels in the Outfield

The Mariners are this year's sexy pick to go deep into the postseason. I don't think so.

Should be enough for a flawed division.
Why the Angels Should Win:  They don't have the best pitcher in the division, but if Wilson rebounds from last year and Richards is truly recovered from his torn tendon, it's the best overall staff. Jared Weaver heads the pitching, Shoemaker is a rising star, and Santiago has serious stuff if he learns to use it.
            We keep waiting for Albert Pujols to be AL awesome and this, I think, will be that year. Mike Trout is the reigning MVP and there's help throughout the lineup: Aybar, Ianetta, Freese, Calhoun….

            Why the Angels Might Not Win: There's the impending distraction of Josh Hamilton, plus this the Angels consistently underachieve. And, as I say every year, I'm not fan of any pitcher with the last name of Weaver in important games.

Team Most Likely to Surprise: The Houston Astros. They're probably a year or two away, but their minor league system is loaded and there's already some very good young talent on this team. Think the Mariners' Robbie Cano is the best second baseman in baseball? Maybe, but check out the Astros' José Altuve before you decide. They also have lots of other guys who can pound the ball—Carter, Gattis, Rasmus, Lowrie…. If the 'Stros improve their on-base percentages, they are going to score lots of runs. And when you look up their pitching records, ignore the won-loss records and take a look at those low ERAs. I don't think 2015 will be their year, but it wouldn't shock me to see them emerge as this year's KC Royals

Team Most Likely to Disappoint: The Seattle Mariners. Yes, they have a potent 1-2 staff in Felix Harnandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. After that, nothing but questions and prayers. (Haven't we seen enough of J. A.  Happ to know he's no one's # 3?) Robbie Cano is a future Hall of Famer and Kyle Seager is the league's best third baseman, but count me among those who doubt that Nelson Cruz will do well in Seattle's hitter-unfriendly confines. But even if all of the previous three perform up to par there's the problem of not having a legit MLB catcher on the roster and that players such as Smith, Ackley, and Morrison don't get on base enough. Richie Weeks as your left fielder? Doubtful. Austin Jackson—flash in the pan? I suspect it. 

Team Most Likely to Suck: That would be the Oakland A's. Can we just start the "Billy Beane-is-really-an-idiot" chants now and skip the season? Between mid-season 2014 and now he's traded away one of MLB's best teams and got what? Let's see he traded an All-Star for Brett Lawrie, the poster child for wasted promise. He raided the offense-challenged Rays and Mets for run production (Zobrist, Fuld, Ike Davis) and that can't be good. Think Kazmir will win 15 games again this year? That Parker will be lights-out after Tommy John surgery? Even if Sonny Gray continues his rise, he'll need to hurl shutouts to win.


1. Los Angeles Angels: Or do I mean the Anaheim Angels? This team is too balanced for the question mark lineups that permeate this division.
2. Seattle Mariners:  A soft pick for second that's based on having just enough great players to compete, though too few to complete.
3.  Houston Astros: Call it a hunch. It wouldn't surprise me to see them finish second, nor would it shock me if they're just too young this year and sink.
4.  Texas Rangers: If Darvish were healthy, I'd like this team more. He's not and despite players such as Beltré, Fielder, Choo, and Andrus, you can't rely on winning a lot of 8-6 games.
5. Oakland A's: I used to admire this team. Now I think they're just cast-offs led by a fraud general manager, playing in MLB's worst stadium in one of America's worst cities.


The Secret Place: Too Claustrophobic and Too Many Characters

Tana French
Viking 978-0670026326, 464 pp.
* * ½ 

I've become a big fan of Tana French's Dublin Murder Mystery series, but The Secret Place (#5), is easily the weakest link thus far. This time setting is St. Kilda, a Catholic girls' boarding school for the spoiled spawn of the Irish haute bourgeoisie (and wannabes) plopped down in a sylvan glen on Dublin's outskirts. In the sort of logic guaranteed to keep the Catholic Church atop the list of the world's most illogical institutions, it sits cheek-by-jowl with its boys' counterpart, Colm's. Both schools have strict non-fraternization rules because, as we all know, dutiful 14-18 year-olds are too busy with the rosary to think about sex. Sex couldn't have had anything to do with the murder of 16-year-old dream hunk Christopher Harper, right?

 Dublin Detectives Thomas Costello and Antoinette Conway failed to bring a prosecution in that case, a major factor in Costello being quietly "retired" from the police and the humorless Conway remaining partnerless a year later. Harper's files are sent to "Cold Cases," a purgatory for an ambitious lad such as Stephen Moran, who wants to move into the action and prestige of the murder squad. When 15-year-old Holly Mackey shows up, it looks as if Moran may get his chance. Holly, a St. Kilda student and daughter of Detective Frank Mackey (from The Faithful Place), is there to present Stephen with a new clue on the Harper case: a card she liberated in good forensic style from her school's student bulletin board—the namesake Secret Place–on the one-year anniversary of Harper's death. Its message, in pasted on letters cut from a book, reads: "I know who killed him."
The icy Conway isn't sure she wants any part of Moran, whom she correctly thinks is just angling for promotion, but he can play the "good cop" in ways incompatible with her curmudgeonly demeanor, so he's along for a 24-hour ride inside a world neither of them could have imagined growing up on the working-class side of the Liffey. The key to cracking the case hinges on who posted the card to the Secret Place after hours when it was inaccessible to students. It will surprise few to learn that St. Kilda was not as 'secure' as its adult staff thought! It also becomes apparent that the card could have only been pinned to the board by eight girls: members of rival cliques, one of which is Holly's inner circle.
Unless you've spent time in such a private school, you do not know the meaning of 'vicious,' but are any of these smart-ass, foul-mouthed, narcissistic girls capable of murder? We are drawn deep into both cliques: Holly is the most intelligent of the eight, but even she turns bitchy when she demurs to the scheming, wise-cracking Julia Harte, who lords over her, the dreamy Selena Wynne, and the gauche-but-about-to-bud Rebecca O'Mara. All four claim to have sworn off dating, largely because the only guys they see are Colm's students, who are as awkward as they and suffer from testosterone poisoning to boot. But what Julia's brood really hates is Joanne Heffernan's clique. Joanne is Svengali-like in the way that she manipulates dimwitted Orla Burgess, compliant Alison Muldon, and flirty Gemma Harding. Joanne's airhead crew is so obsessed with popularity that they look and dress alike. Holly's lot has nicknamed them the "Daleks," as if they were the cyborg race from Doctor Who. The only thing all eight agree upon is that Chris was such a hunk that he couldn't possibly have been dating anyone from the other clique. Moran and Conway aren't buying that, but it won't be easy separating the murderer from the framers.
Sound complex? It is, and not always in a good way. The novel is often claustrophobic. Chapters alter between a series of interrogations that take place over one very long day and flashbacks to the shenanigans and intrigue that took place in the months leading to Chris' death. Still, we never venture off the St. Kilda campus. You can feel the walls closing in as we near revelation, but I too started to feel weary by then. Ms. French is a skillful writer, but there's literally not enough space for much to happen.
Toward the end, Holly's father makes a dramatic appearance. This means that the novel has a dozen (including Chris) major characters and, frankly, that's four or five too many. Even at  440+ pages, you quickly eliminate numerous suspects because their characters aren't well enough developed to make them credible villains. There's also ghost hysteria thrown in that's too silly to play the role French assigns.
I finished The Secret Place. I didn't resent spending my time doing so, but I probably could have done something more productive. I admire the fact that French's detectives are flawed people, not Sherlock-like deductive geniuses, but what I took away from this book is that Irish police methods are very different from those in America, that private schools are Dickensian nightmares, and that children should be cryogenically frozen from ages 14 to 18. That's probably not what French had in mind. Read it or skip it; it will neither shatter nor rock your world.  Rob Weir


Liz Longley a Glorious New Voice

Liz Longley
Sugar Hill 4108
* * * *

Looking for a glorious new voice? Liz Longley came out of Boston's Berklee College of Music a few years back and immediately began drawing comparisons to Shawn Colvin, Natalie Cole, and Nanci Griffith. That was the excitement speaking, as she doesn't sound like any of them and that will be just fine with anyone lucky enough to hear her. Longley sings with all the power of a pop star, but with the wisdom of a mature performer who knows the difference between presentation and pyrotechnics. You'll hear some of those whispery tones female country singers favor these days, but also delightful catches, full-throated soaring scales, and lower-register grit. She's pretty darn handy with the pen as well, which is to say that Ms. Longley is the real deal.

Longley's Sugar Hill release is her third full release and, for better and occasionally for worse, it's aimed at breaking through Nashville's noisy and competitive scene. There are songs on this record that are just about as good as songwriting gets. "Skin and Bones" has that Appalachia with ominous undertones feel that's evocative of a David Olney song; and "We Run," is an inspirational pop/rock anthem in honor of a cousin she lost to 9/11. (Longley also performed this song as part of the Boston Strong campaign.) Then there's her confessional "Bad Habit," an anti-tribute to a bad relationship that should have ended sooner; and "This Is Not the End," an honest look at not being able to let go. But even these pale compared to "Memphis," destined to become the earworm you'll feel blessed to have living in your head. It's another song about something that may or may not be ending, this one dished out with a warning. Longley frames it in a signature tune and about as much raw emotion as a body can take without choking. The only thing that prevents me from declaring the entire album one for the ages is the feeling that there's more going on here than is needed. I've heard most of these songs in Longley solo performances that I much prefer to the slick studio processing. Whether you will or not depends upon how you feel about Nashville records aimed at country/pop audiences. There is, however, an old adage about gilding and lilies. Make no mistake; Liz Longley is a rare lily indeed, so maybe we can dispense with the gilt.  Rob Weir