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
I love historical fiction and this was a wonderful simple story with World War I and Russia as its backround. The narrator took some getting used to but by the middle I was all in with the accents. It was every bit as good as enthralling as Pillars of the Earth.
Lyrical and unexpected, a slice of life that puts you on the ground during a dark period of Leningrad's history and let's you experience both the pathos and absurdity of survival during war. The charactyers are beautifully drawn and you will feel a wonderful affection for them before the story's end.
I only read this book because of my book club. I am sure glad they chose it. What a wonderful read. I didn't want it to end. It richly describes the horrors of war time for both civilians and military. Everyone should read this book.
I am an avid "reader"- I prefer to listen to books rather than read them due to the added dimension added by the narrator.
This was an odd book in that I almost erased it 4 times. I'm glad I stuck it out
as once the story began to focus on the relationship between Lev and Kolya, it began to have heart. In the end, I'm glad I read it as it gave me a window into Russian culture and what the Russians lived through during the second World War. Having been in St. Petersburg and having seen the destruction that the German soldiers inflicted on that city alone, it was fascinating to get an eye on the people and how they were affected. I found the reader's voice somwhat irritating and monotone but perhaps the book was read that way on purpose.
David Benioff wanted to write a biography of his grandfather’s experience in the siege of Leningrad. However, his grandfather, tired of interviews and questions, and poking and prodding told him simply, “David, you’re a writer. Make it up!” What resulted was something halfway between a history and a fever dream. There are moments that, personally, I would have preferred to leave out. (If you’re an animal lover, I highly recommend skipping from the top of page 110 to the start of the next chapter.) And the story that reminds you just how awful Nazis really were reads like something out of the most recent round of torture porn, because that’s exactly what he is describing. But it’s the rest of the moments that really make the book work. The horror is the leading that holds this stained glass depiction of an experience up where we can see it.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t spend the whole book trying to sort out what was real and what was made up. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to know what a grandson imagined about the almost hero his grandfather had been. I didn’t want to know because even if it hadn’t happened to him, to Lev Beniov, it happened to someone in Piter that winter. And maybe, in making it up, David Benioff managed to write the story of a city under siege even more than the biography of his grandfather who lives in Florida, as far away from the Piter snow as he can get.
This is a great story. I did not do several things I should have because I wanted to know what happened next. The writing is very good though not stellar, but the characters are undeniably memorable.
Our reader, though his accents are shaky at first, ends up being and integral and dark lovely force by a couple chapters in.
This is a well produced book with chapters marked and punctuated by music. If I had a criticism it would be the music interrupting the ends of chapters and distracting (albeit sometimes relieving) the intensity of the narrative.
All in all – I wish it was longer because I want more!
I'm an avid listener with over 1000 books in my library. I have a job that requires me to travel about 1000 miles per week.
This book was very good but the narrator made it a great listen! His accents were believable and not overdone. This was a very pleasant surprise and I was sorry it ended.
This book helped me survive the flu. It was not in my Wish List; I purchased it from one of the Audible "sales racks." I am so glad I did. The combination of the prose and narration painted a picture that has left me feeling like I have just seen a fabulous haunting movie. I can relay all the details as though I saw them on the silver screen, yet they are only in my head. The character development is superb and I cannot disconnect the narrator from his character; he was perfect as Lev. I felt I truly knew the two main characters as I moved through the book. I was curious about the next adventure as I trudged across the Russian winter landscape with them. I was never allowed to forget the bitter cold, extreme hunger and utter cruelty they were experiencing. Yet I laughed at their foolishness, marveled at their resourcefulness and remained hopeful for them despite the steep odds against them. I could not want more from a book. As such, I am awarding it with five precious stars.
This book has everything. How can a book that describes horrible war time conditions also be so funny that it makes you laugh out loud? It was realistic, humorous, and I cried at the end. Sure some of the language is rough and the conversation is appropriate to two young males, but it is not a "guy" novel, as some have suggested. It is a novel about friendship and courage. The reader was excellent. The narrator was a low key kind of guy and that's how it was read. Perfect.
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