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Editorial Reviews

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

Publisher's Summary

A writer visits his retired grandparents in Florida to document their experience during the infamous siege of Leningrad. His grandmother won't talk about it, but his grandfather reluctantly consents. The result is the captivating odyssey of two young men trying to survive against desperate odds. Lev Beniov considers himself "built for deprivation." He's small, smart, and insecure, a Jewish virgin too young for the army, who spends his nights working as a volunteer firefighter with friends from his building.

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

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  • Overall
  • KP
  • Oakland, CA
  • 02-28-10

A Compelling Read!

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.

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

A beautiful, wonderful book

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.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • John
  • danbury, CT, USA
  • 06-09-10

Very Mixed Feelings

I was very torn reviewing this book. I thought the narration was very un-even. His dialogue narration was far better than is 'story-telling' narration. That being said, I found his narration extremely monotonal. I also found the sexual language and sexual/romantic storyline to be very primal and base and not romantic or loving at all. I know that I am certainly out-numbered on this issue: I guess the base and sexually implicit language might have been pertinent to the story, but I mostly found it to be offensive and vile. It is a well written story, but not worth the accolades, I've certainly read & listened to far better WWII novels

33 of 46 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Buyers' remorse

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.

6 of 8 people found this review helpful

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Great story . . . too much lowbrow writing

Fifteen reviews so far and nothing less than a 4-star? I bought the book because of the great reviews, the storyline and time period, and from the perspective of Russia. I was looking forward to the read. After 2 1/2 hours of listening, I had to hit the bail button.

I am continually astonished that writers that have a great storyline and something to say, proceed to poison the story by dragging it through the gutter. What purpose does it serve? Is the story enhanced because profanity is embedded into the whole thing? Oh, maybe a dose of graphic sexual situations will appeal to a broader audience? It is ridiculous! Good stories can stand on their own - period!

I mean, what does this have to do with anything: The two guys are watching the officers daughter ice skate in her fur coat and one of them is picturing her naked so later he can masturbate about her. What does this tell us about the guy? He is horny? Yeah, so what is new. How many ways do you have to tell us about a penis and the multiple slang terms for it? How many times do you have to use the "F" word?

Since books don't have ratings (like movies), I must make decisions on purchasing them from other reviews. Unfortunately, none were offered from this perspective. Ultimately, I am a little torqued that I spent my money to help support this book. Maybe our society is a little desensitized by this, but frankly I am sick of it. From what I have read of this story, if you removed the graphic vulgarity and sexuality, the story would NOT suffer.

I hope that authors would do us all a favor and continue to focus on good stories and keep the unneeded adjectives out... keep something to the reader's imagination. I hope this review would at least make other potential readers aware of what they're purchasing, and give another perspective because so many of us find this type of writing completely unnecessary.

85 of 123 people found this review helpful

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The Perfect Book Narrated by the Perfect Narrator

If you like Russian humor, eggs, war stories, Hellboy and Game of Thrones, and have never listened to an audiobook before, you should probably lose your audio virginity to The City of Thieves by David Benioff, read by Ron Flipping Perlman.

It’s World War II, and the Nazis have sieged Leningrad. Two young Russian prisoners form an unlikely friendship when a powerful colonel offers them freedom if they can procure a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake.

It's a perfect book narrated by the perfect reader. Benioff, who is the co-creator of Game of Thrones on HBO, perfects the ratio of pathos, drama, comedy, dialogue and gore. The City of Thieves is a buddy comedy, love story, World War II epic and Russian literary history all rolled up into one. It's meta. It's action-packed. It's poetry. It works on every level. Best yet, it's meant to be performed and Ron Perlman, the man behind Hellboy, is the perfect guy for the job.

You can tell when I really super loved a book, because that's when I get all tongue tied and speechless. So I'm going to shut up about this now. 5,000 stars. The end.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Giving Substance to One's Life

City of Thieves, David Benioff, and read by Ron Perlman. The story takes place in the mayhem of the siege of St. Petersburg.

In existentialism, the individual's starting point is characterized by a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. Søren Kierkegaard, the first existentialist proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it authentically. That is precisely what City of Thieves examines in its absurd but enthralling tale. What is it that life has to offer?

The siege of Leningrad, that is St. Petersburg, was not a meaningless happening in World War II, but its effect on the Russian people was absurd. And so is the backdrop for this wonderfully written and intellectually stimulating book. If you are thinking of reading City of Thieves, grab the book now and enjoy the journey, the thought provoking harshness of the siege of St. Petersburg, the cruelties it displays, the warmth it departs between humans who find the need to team up together, and the understanding of the horrors of war upon which it engenders its story. The war portrayed here is harsh yet humanizing.

Our champions in the book are all presented in the severe realities of war, but set out on a ridiculous undertaking. As absurd as their duties are the realities of what they need to obtain given the surrounding horrors of war is presented through the magnificent understanding or our author and with blood, guts and humor. In fact, by the end, one wonders which of the three main characters was the hero – or was there a hero?

Through the harsh reality of the siege on St. Petersburg, along with the absurdity of the task and how people react to their circumstances the question is asked more than once in the story: Why, if there are millions of other suns out there, many if not most larger and brighter than the Sun, and light travels forever, do they not shine and bring light upon us during nights?

When you leave this story, you have just a little better understanding as to how horrible humans are while how loving they remain. Five stars is difficult to earn. City of Thieves is at least that good.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Good story, lousy narration

I'd recommend reading this rather than listen to the audio. The narration is just too flat/monotone to bring the story to life.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Excellent listen

I think this was the first book I listened to on audible over a year ago. To this day, it is the standard by which I measure every other book. Phenomenal story! Excellent reading performance.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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A gripping coming of age WWII story from the USSR

During the siege of Leningrad, a seventeen year old boy becomes isolated from his family and friends. Caught up the machine of war, his doom seems imminent, but he is suddenly partnered with a gregarious and vulgar deserter and given an impossible task.

As their journey takes them into ever more dangerous situations, the young man discovers there is more to this man than he first realized, and there is more ability within himself than realized also.

This novel tells a gripping story set in the hardship of war, with developed characters and a satisfying, hopeful conclusion. It is one of those books you don't want to stop listening to when you arrive at your destination. For anyone who doesn't mind some moderate vulgarity and wartime violence, I would heartily recommend this book.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful