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 am a 65-year-old psychologist, married for 25 years, with two sons who are 25 and 22. I love reviewing the books and the feedback I get.
If you have any Russian blood in you, as I do, this story will reverberate for you. During the war, two waifs find their way through almost incomprehensible famine, destruction, bombing by the ubiquitous Germans and winter's cold, on a mission from a Russian general to find a dozen eggs! One is Jewish, although only half, and the other is pure blond-haired, blue-eyed Cossack. This is the perfect duo. They stumble through enemy lines and eventually the Jewish boy, who is seventeen, finds himself playing chess with a monstrous Nazi Oberleuitenant (forgive my ignorance of German; perhaps it is understandable). The Nazi has murdered so many Russians, in such vile ways, that he must be killed. Along the way our boys pick up Vika, a tiny woman who is the best sniper around. She is so bony that she passes for a young boy, and Lev falls in chaste love with her. The writing is smooth and true. The narrator is an actor who knows how to use his voice. There are a few funny scenes, particularly one in which our boys, looking for eggs, find a scrawny what-they-think-is-a-chicken. They are in for a surprise. You might expect the book to be depressing, as much WWII stuff is for me now, but the author and the narrator make it rise above the Russian suffering. We know the horrendous losses that Russia sustained, but the book is worth reading for its insights into Russia. Only Martin Cruz Smith can do this better, and he is truly in a league with only one member.
Listen to this book and you will never forget it. If you've read other historical fiction based on WWII, I can guarantee that this novel will set a new benchmark. Benioff takes you on a wondrous, heartfelt, painful, funny, thrilling journey with two characters that get under your skin and stay there. Bravo!
Wow, what a great story paired with the perfect narrator. Ron Perlman's monotone delivery allows the story to unfold in the listeners mind while letting the books humor sneak up on you with laugh out loud moments. There are plenty of books on the terrible siege of Lenningrad filled with facts and stats, but none that offer such lovable, relatable characters and insight into the everyday struggles of everyday people. With the right amount of examples of the absurdity of war, it brings you in quick then takes you on a journey in the familiar QUEST format, wrapping up the story with an ending that is both happy and sad. If this is your genre than its a must listen.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is fascinating on many levels: as historical fiction depicting the siege of Leningrad, a unique friendship between two people, a type of quest and a journey. The characters are well developed and the reader does a great job of bringing them to life.
One master-passion in the br east, like Aaron's serpent, swallows all the rest. A. Pope
This is a novel I would have never found or read if not for the superb reviews on Audible. All I can add is: BELIEVE THE HYPE. A wonderful tale of young Russians in WWII as told by the grandson of immigrants.
I am half through the audiobook and so irritated by Ron Perlman's slow, monotonous narration that I had to stop. He delivers dialogue acceptably. Everything in between sounds as if he can barely keep his eyes open from boredom.
As for the book itself, the beginning was promising enough, and Benioff can definitely write, but by now it's like listening to an abridgement or screenplay. Benioff took grandpa too literally when told to make up the rest of the story. It is under-researched and over dominated by the protagonists' normal but tedious obsession with sex. So far, women in this book are reduced to (grand)mother, witch, cypher, and sex object. The liberal use of the F-word and obscene euphemisms for female genitalia got old in a hurry.
I'd never heard of Benioff before today. Turns out he's an unusually gorgeous, successful screenwriter (25th Hour, Troy, Kite Runner), married to actress Amanda Peet; native New Yorker, Dartmouth grad, son of a former head of Goldman-Sachs. He started to write while his wife was pregnant and his daughter was born when the novel was half-finished. It was only after 9/11 that he became interested in the siege of Leningrad and finally asked his Russian immigrant grandfather about his experience. So the real story here might be Benioff, who also wrote the novel "The 25th Hour" which was published 9 months before 9/11, from which I found this rather chilling quote:
“F-ck this whole city and everyone in it. From the row-houses of Astoria to the penthouses on Park Avenue, from the projects in the Bronx to the lofts in Soho. From the tenements in Alphabet City to the brownstones in Park Slope to the split-levels in Staten Island. Let an earthquake crumble it, let the fires rage, let it burn to f-cking ash and then let the waters rise and submerge this whole rat-infested place.”
Knowing what I know now, I'll finish this book, but I want my money back for the audioproduction.
There is no Frigate like a Book To take us Lands away Nor any Coursers like a Page Of prancing Poetry – Emily Dickinson
I really liked this book! I think David Benioff did an amazing job of weaving a very dark war story in with humorous episodes and even sexy ones. Mainly he tells a good story, and he made me care even more about the characters with his opening chapter where he seems to tell us that it really IS his grandfather who is the main character. I can't figure out from the reviews I read whether this is true or not, BUT it worked to make me evaluate the plot in a different way. Toward the end, I couldn't stop listening. I would have given it 5 stars except I guess I am a little tired of WWII stories involving Nazi atrocities. Of course, this one was focused on the Russian perspective of WWII, but I'm just not completely fond of war stories. In the last book I listened to, Out Stealing Horses, there was even a WWI/Nazi component, but it was removed from the action in a way that made in not as central to the story as in this book. Anyway, I did really enjoy listening to this book.
This book rivals "The Company" for my all time favorite audiobook. I loved the main characters and the narrator was terrific!
I tremendously enjoyed everything about this book. It is funny and exciting, yet emotionally involving. A coming of age story set in wartime. The narration by Ron Perlman was excellent. I wish the book was longer.
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