Saturday, September 26, 2009

Stossel, healthcare, and a life unfinished

This is supposed to be a political blog about a luncheon I attended on Thursday featuring John Stossel. He was there to speak about healthcare, and I was one of a handful of bloggers invited to cover the event for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Stossel had some enlightening insights, and I fully intend to cover them all. In fact, while there I was tweeting live about the event, so my actual notes are on Twitter at -- but more on that another time. You can use the #stossel hashtag to find exactly what I was writing, as well as what the other bloggers wrote.

I had the honor, while there, of sitting next to a UT student, Brianna Becker, who was an intern for TPPF. While we were obviously all very busy, we did exchange a few words and I mentioned that I had graduated from UT myself. She told me she was a student there now. We went on about our business, covering the speech. Stossel had, as I said, some interesting views on healthcare, comparing insurance to "grocery insurance." I will go into more depth in a later article.

I found out this morning that, tragically, Brianna was killed while jogging at UT Friday afternoon, hit by an SUV. I was stunned. She was vibrant, full of life, full of potential. I only knew her briefly, but she had her entire life ahead of her.

So while this story should be about the Stossel event, I am choosing instead to pay homage to a life unfinished - to Brianna Becker. I only knew her briefly, but I could tell she had a bright future. May she rest in peace.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Kingmaker (by Brian Haig)

Reviewed by Tracy L. Karol

The Kingmaker

In this outing, our hero, Sean Drummond, is summoned to defend a man he despises who has been accused of espionage. The man is a general, no less, and is married to the woman Drummond loved in college.

While the general is clearly a jerk and his wife, a CIA agent, put up with a lot of gruff from him (which Drummond wonders continuously WHY she ever married the guy), Drummond begins to have his suspicions if, despite his otherwise odious personality, he is truly guilty of the crimes he of which is accused. If so, he would be the greatest traitor our country has ever seen, having given secrets to the Russians and, before that, the Soviets for decades.

This is a classic mystery. In fact, Haig gets so much right in this book about how Russia actually operates and how the Soviet Union fell, along with how the new powers came to be, that his latest novel, The Hunted, was inspired by a man who read this novel and lived through that time. Read my review on The Hunted for more. Clearly Haig known that of which he writes, and he writes it expertly. He knows just when to insert a line of humorous dialogue or acerbic wit. Think John Corey in a military uniform. I love Sean Drummond! If you haven't read the Drummond series, this is as good as any place to start, but I recommend reading all his books.

His latest novel does not feature Drummond, but is still likely the best novel I've read in years. Brian Haig is, in my opinion, in league with Nelson DeMille, Vince Flynn, Robert Crais, Lee Child, and others. I'm so glad I discovered him. This novel will have you hooked until the very end. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"The President's Assasin" by Brian Haig

[[ASIN:0446617113 The President's Assassin]]

I admit it. I'm addicted to Brian Haig. In the past two weeks I've read every book he's written (well, I'm almost done with "Man in the Middle") and I'll probably go into withdrawal until he releases a new book, as I've already read "The Hunted."

In this outing, our hero Sean Drummond has sufficiently annoyed his bosses that they've loaned him out to the CIA. That doesn't stop his wise-cracking, smart-mouthed tactic, however.

The book opens with a murder scene (a particularly bad one) and the clock starts ticking on a seeming threat to the president's life.

Drummond is paired with a by-the-book FBI agent who is also an ace profiler. And Drummond is angry about these murders (more come in the following days). Not so much the political ones as the senseless murders of a Secret Service agent, the brutality shown by the killers, and more. The crimes quickly escalate and a suspect is identified. To say more here would be a spoiler, but Haig truly makes you feel the pain of the victims no one seems to care about and you understand his anger.

I read this book, as usual, in about a day or so. Drummond reminds me of John Corey, the hero in Nelson DeMille's novels (Plum Island, The Lion's Game). As I've rushed through Haig's books I don't understand why I never heard of him before and why he isn't a top name author. He really is that good. I hope he comes out with another book soon. I am thoroughly enjoying "Man in the Middle." Review to come soon, along with others of the previous books in this series. This one will leave you guessing up until the end, though you might have a clue about the bad guy.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

"The Hunted" by Brian Haig

[[ASIN:0446195596 The Hunted]]

In the opening pages of this book, Brian Haig pays homage to Nelson DeMille, calling him his favorite author (he also happens to be one of mine) and says that Nelson once gave him a piece of advice that went something like this: "You'll only write a certain number of books in your life. Make sure each of them are the absolute best they can be." I'm sure I've mangled that quote but I'm completely sleep deprived after staying up all night to finish "The Hunted." Let me just say that Brian Haig more than delivered.

This is a fact-based thriller based on a real-life couple (their last name is slightly changed in the book), Alex and Elena Konevitch. It starts out a bit slow, with KGB agents and others sitting around discussing the imminent fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Boris Yeltsin. What they can't figure out is where Boris got the money to finance a campaign that actually succeeded in bringing democracy to the USSR. Finally they discover that a 22-year-old expelled student from Moscow University (Alex) bankrolled Boris, but managed to stay in the shadows.
Alex, it seems, was a capitalist in a communist country years before the Iron Curtain fell. He was running businesses out of his dorm room at Moscow University, but was turned in by a jealous classmate and expelled. No matter; he went on to build an empire and within a few years was worth millions. Somehow this very young man had a grasp of finance and business that would make Donald Trump green with envy. How the Soviet Union produced such a man is a mystery, but this actually happened. And Alex wanted to bring democracy to his country, so he helped Boris Yelstin win the presidency and toppled the Soviet Union.

Soon Alex meets Elena and they fall in love. He continues to grow his multitude of businesses and works with Boris. He is young and handsome and his wife is beautiful. But the KGB cabal has not forgotten him, and in a conspiracy they kidnap the young couple, horribly torture Alex, steal all his money and businesses and plan to murder the couple. Yet Alex and Elena manage to escape to America, where they are granted political asylum.
Without giving away too much of the plot, I will quickly summarize what happens next. Alex, working now with Elena (at her insistence), begin new lives and are soon making money hand over fist. Alex is simply brilliant with finances and knows the market. It is the beginning of the dot-com craze and he anticipates what to do. He also keeps in close touch with his immigration attorney, MP, who got the couple asylum.

But Alex's reputation back in Russia is in complete tatters. He has been framed for stealing from his own companies and making off with millions. The cabal that did this to him is already planning on their next victim, while Alex's original businesses are failing miserably under the control of the KGB man who ordered the frame. They want Alex and Elena back in Russia and dead. Yet Alex has taken precautions; he has left a false trail in America and is being hunted in the wrong city.

All his planning is for naught, though, when the FBI director decides he wants to expand the Moscow station. He promises to send Alex and Elena back to Russia to face trial for their "crimes" if he can do this. Of course he has no idea if Alex is guilty, nor does he appear to care.
This quickly turns into a nightmare for the young couple. Once again their money is gone (frozen this time), they are jailed, and a hit is put out on them. It is truly a tale of corruption in both countries, with some contemptible characters on each side and some honorable ones as well.

How Alex and Elena get through the next years, and the outcome of this tale, is remarkable. You absolutely must read this book. I guarantee that you won't be able to put it down once you are a few chapters into it. It turns out that Alex actually wrote a biography of the events himself and contacted Brian Haig with the story (which was quite public in the USA and Russia at one point), telling him he might be interested in it. While Brian Haig shortens the story into a novel and fictionalizes some characters, the basic story is true. However, from what I can determine Alex and Elena actually suffered even worse atrocities over a longer period. I will certainly buy the book written by Alex to get the full story.

If you read just one book this year, read "The Hunted." It is a thriller, a spy classic, romance, espionage, suspense -- everything, and it is absolutely riveting. I'm only awake long enough to write this review as I stayed up most of the night finishing the book. It truly is that good. Highly recommended. If I could give it more than five stars, I would.