Two unlikely young men charged with desertion and facing execution in the besieged city of Leningrad are charged with an impossible task: they can have their freedom if they can find a dozen eggs for the wedding cake of a powerful colonel's daughter. The two make an odd couple: one a scrawny Jewish outsider, the other an erudite charmer, and their journey takes them from the war-torn city to the snow-covered countryside. Sound like the basis of a classic movie? That might be because the author, David Benioff, is a successful screenwriter, and City of Thieves is halfway between movie-script and roman-a-clef, between airport blockbuster and serious literature.
It's a difficult balancing act, but it succeeds here in no small part due to Ron Perlman's unforgettable narration. His voice is as full of character as his celebrated face, and his bar-room drawl brings a hard-boiled noir quality to the narration. It's a voice dripping in contraband and cordite, easily navigating the Russian names and injecting a sly, seductive humor into the dialogue that offsets the occasional lapse into sentimentality. It's a fantastic performance that succeeds in tying together the disparate elements of this rich tale.
Perlman also takes great relish in conveying the myriad of tiny details that Benioff weaves into the narrative, and which lend a cinematic quality to the work. Indeed, the author's screenwriting background is evident throughout: there's a tightly-constructed plot that never loses a sense of forward propulsion, even during the quieter moments; there is a skilful interweaving of film-school tropes the buddy movie, the coming-of-age tale, the WWII film. And there's that attention to detail. Although Benioff has clearly done his research, it's the off-beat imagery that brings to life the reality of living in a besieged city: concrete dragon's teeth are arranged to hinder the approach of enemy tanks; leather boots still bloody from the feet of the previous owners; malnourished children's bones break easily.
A slightly superfluous framing narrative alerts us to the novel's more literary aspirations. The art of storytelling is central to this tale, and the narrative brims over with literary references: doomed poets, scabrous novelists, callous propagandists. The picaresque plot recalls A Hero of Our Time, and the main action begins with a German parachutist's corpse drifting down the empty streets, an image halfway between a movie storyboard and Lord of the Flies just one of many evocative set-pieces in this highly entertaining adventure. Dafydd Phillips
When a dead German paratrooper lands in his street, Lev is caught looting the body and dragged to jail, fearing for his life. He shares his cell with the charismatic and grandiose Kolya, a handsome young soldier arrested on desertion charges. Instead of the standard bullet in the back of the head, Lev and Kolya are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful colonel to use in his daughter's wedding cake. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt to find the impossible.
A search that takes them through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and the devastated surrounding countryside creates an unlikely bond between this earnest, lust-filled teenager and an endearing lothario with the gifts of a conman.
Set within the monumental events of history, City of Thieves is an intimate coming-of-age tale with an utterly contemporary feel for how boys become men.
©2008 David Benioff; (P)2008 Penguin
For years I have been saying that my favorite book of all time, the best written and most cinematic, is FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLES, but now another war story with partisans is pushing itself to the front of the line. CITY OF THIEVES is the perfect construction as a piece of literature and Ron Perlman, one of my favorite actors, has done a great job.
There's enough 5 star reviews that I don't have to go on too much about the positives, so I will make two other short comments.
Regarding Mr. Perlman's performance, and I would site the director for this; at the beginning of the piece there is some sloppy diction which threw my dyslectic ear for a loop. Only three or four slurs, mind you, and after 30 minutes the performance fit the book perfectly.
Regarding the one comment from a reviewer about the inappropriate language, I must whole-heartily disagree. All the language fit the characters and situations perfectly. There's a whole section of Christian literature for those who do not want to read stories written the way people really talk. Maybe there should be warnings at the beginning about harsh language, like on TV. I don't know, that's another conversation. It does purport to be young adult literature. See, I’m trying to be fair. Ah, let’s save that for another forum. I guess it shows how wonderfully written the book is that the strong language made it through the editorial process of a publisher buying a YA book. Me, I'm almost 60 and I think it’s YA only because the protagonists are young.
I will have to listen to both books again to see if Mr. Benioff will replace Mr. Hemingway at the top of my list.
Lory Kaufman, Kingston, Canada
This was a good book. To get 5 stars I have to be wanting to listen to it again. While this book doesn't qualify for 5 stars, it is a solid 4 and worth the download.
This book was stunningly good. The reader was excellent; don't let the negative reviews fool you. Text should be able to speak for itself. Readers don't have to over-dramatize good writing. I listened to the whole thing and have now gone back through and listened to various chunks at a time. I continue to be deeply impressed. Probably the best book I have read in several years.
Beniff's engrossing story and Ron Perlman's narration make for a 5-star audiobook. I have just listened to this for the second time on a road trip - this time so my boyfriend could hear. We barely spoke for 7 hours! The history of this time and place was something with which I was unfamiliar. It's also terribly funny, haunting and poignant. A classic coming of age tale that should be on high school reading lists -- and yes, even with the cursing and crudeness. It's beautiful.
This author knows how to tell a tale and the narration is very good too. The story takes place in Leningrad or St. Petersburg. They still called it Peter in the book even though it had been re- named for Lenin. I think the German siege of the city is one of the more interesting parts of WW11. Hunger and cold are constant in this book and life is cheap. Most good books are about a journey to somewhere and even though it is a siege story the author manages to take you on a journey to get some eggs. I really enjoyed this book and I know I will think of it often. Worth the credit to me, and I think you will agree.
I enjoyed this book although I felt the writing was only better than average, not fantastic. I feel like this book is aimed at young adult boys and would be a great read for a boy in junior high or early high school. As an adult, I enjoyed the humor of the situation but also was able to feel the desperation of the people in Leningrad during the siege of the city.
Some of the reviews have mentioned that the language was crass and I can see their point. However, this is about boys try to survive starvation, Nazis, and execution by their own people so I think the bawdy humor balanced that out. The crude, sexual jokes seemed believable based on my conversations and a young man when I was that age.
Oh, and I enjoyed Ron Perlman's narration.
I have not read a book that has kept me so fully engrossed in the story since Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The story is compelling, humorous at times, and above all, entertaining. As soon as I finished the book, I told my wife she needed to read it, just so I had someone to talk to about it. Ron Pearlman does an excellent job with the narration. His subtle command of the different accents made the dialog of various characters very easy to follow.
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