Thursday, July 16, 2009

City of Thieves - David Benioff

Title: City of Thieves
Author: David Benioff
Published: 2008 Pages: 258
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5

City of Thieves was our July book club pick and I was really excited about reading this one because I've heard good things about it. Actually haven't heard much about the book except that it's good--oh, and that it is set in Russia.

City of Thieves is about a young man, Lev, who is trying to make his way on his own in Leningrad during the Nazis' siege during World War II. Most of his family has fled the city or has already been claimed victim to the war, but he remains in the desolate city with a group of other misfits. One night he happens upon a dead German parachuter and while looting the soldier's pockets, he is arrested. In prison, he meets and befriends Koyla who has been imprisoned for deserting the army. Lev and Koyla are given another chance at freedom by an army colonel if they complete a dangerous mission for him--finding a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding.

Lev and Koyla, upon their release, journey around Leningrad and across Russia in search of a dozen eggs. I could give you a laundry list of events that occur in the book during the boys' mission, but Benioff explains it so well in the following passage:

"I don't know." Yes, it was a stupid cowardly response but I could not handle the morning's peaks and valleys. One moment I thought I had a few minutes left to live; the next a sniper from Archangel was flirting with me. Was she flirting with me? The days had become a confusion of catastrophes; what seemed impossible in the afternoon was blunt fact by evening. German corpses fell from the sky; cannibals sold sausage links made from ground human in the Haymarket; apartment blocs collapsed to the ground; dogs became bombs; frozen soldiers became signposts; a partisan with half a face stood swaying in the snow, staring sad-eyed at his killers. I had no food in my belly, no fat on my bones, and no energy to reflect on this parade of atrocities" (212).
There is never a dull moment in the book; the story is intense and will keep you turning the pages to find out whether or not Lev and Koyla complete their mission to find the dozen eggs. But even though this is a mostly plot-driven novel, there is also a lot of tenderness and heart as Benioff fully describes the effect of the Nazi siege. Unfortunately I don't know a ton about Russian history during WWII and Stalin's reign, but this book was able to fill in some of those gaps. I wish that Benioff would have given a little more background to the politics and ideology in Russia at the time, but the other members of the bookclub really appreciated that this one wasn't bogged down in heavy details. The main focus of the story is Lev and Koyla's journey--not the convoluted mess behind the war and Russia's political stance.

I would certainly recommend this book--it is an entertaining read and will have you gripping the book as you furiously turn to the next page. The boys are in their late teens/early twenties, so there is a lot of talk about sex and a little bit of language. This didn't bother me like it might in some other books--seemed to fit seamlessly with their characters and the fact that in spite of everything they encounter and have to endure, they are just boys.

Why the 3.5 rating? While City of Thieves was a good book and I thoroughly enjoyed it, there isn't going to be a whole lot that sticks with me other than some of the more gruesome events--like I said, very plot-driven. This isn't to say that the characters are developed, because I think Benioff does a great job of developing the boys' characters (would have liked to see some of the other minor characters a little more defined). Maybe it's because of the length--only 258 pages? Can't really put my finger on it, but it just didn't have the bang and punch I was expecting. Don't let that deter you, though--check it out for yourself. Benioff has a wonderful writing style and this book will give you a great (albeit small) perspective on Russia during the war.

Despite weeks on the Bestseller List, this is the only other review I found:
Charley from Bending Bookshelf


Amanda said...

I've seen this around a lot, too, but can't remember a word said about it. It's never looked particularly interesting to me.

Jeanne said...

Borders employees are really pushing this book, so I was curious about it. I might have to wait until I can get it from the library.

bermudaonion said...

I love a good plot driven book from time to time and think I'd like to give this one a try. Great review.

Charley said...

I would probably give this a 3.5 as well. I would have given it a 5, but the ending didn't quite work for me.

Nicole said...

This is the 2nd good review that I have seen for this one. The curiosity is building!

Thoughts of Joy said...

Hey - you're reading Holly's Inbox! I went to get it at the library and by the time I got there it was gone! I can't wait to read your thoughts.

samantha.1020 said...

I hadn't heard of this one but it does sound interesting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it :)

Trish said...

*Amanda - I think the language and sex talk would bother you--kind of gritty, as you would say.

*Jeanne - Yes, I think my friend picked this one up for the book club per Border's recommendation. I've seen it everywhere except the blogosphere. Hmmm.

*Bermuda - This is a pretty exciting book--lots going on. And a quick read. Hope you like it!

*Charley - The ending didn't bother me so much, but I think overall the book was too short--not enough depth or background.

*Nicole - I hope you like it! It's a pretty action-packed book so I'm surprised I haven't seen it around more.

*Joy - I'm about halfway through the book. Don't know if I like it, but it's hard to stop reading! :P

*Samantha - This one seems to be around on the bookshelves of Target and Walmart--very easy to find. It's an interesting read.

Karen said...

I haven't heard about this one before but it does sound interesting. For some reason (not really sure why) I am keen to read more books set in Russia at the moment. Although given what you have said about this being a plot driven book this one might not be for me - I'm definitely more of a character driven book kinda girl!

Literary Feline said...

This is one of the books in my TBR room waiting its turn. WWII is a time period that really interests me and while I have read a little about the Soviets during that time, I haven't read a lot of fiction related to them.

Debi said...

Sheesh, don't I feel out of touch...I've never heard of this book before. But I do think I'd like to read it. And I'm waaaay behind on the WWII challenge. Great review, Trish!

Angie said...

Thanks for the review. I'm not crazy about plot-driven books. I prefer the kind of books where it feels like the characters stay with me long past the point when I've finished reading.

C. B. James said...

I've been eyeing this one in the bookstore for a while. I've been listening to Dan Harlin's Hardcore History podcasts about the German/Soviet front of World War II. You can get it for free on iTunes. It's very interesting, very enlightening. Americans know very little about this part of World War II, probably since our history books did not want to portray Soviets as the good guys.

Trish said...

*Karen - I really would like to know more about Russia as well. And even though it is more plot-driven, the characters are definitely well rounded.

*Lit Feline - I haven't read very much about the Soviets at all and would love to continue to learn more. This doesn't go into a lot of history or politics, but the story certainly is interesting.

*Debi - This would be a really quick one for the WWII challenge--it's not very long and a fast read. You could find this one pretty easily at Borders or Target/Walmart--seems to be heavily marketed.

*Angie - Like I was telling Karen above, the characters are well rounded, but with a book that's only 250 pages long it's hard to really get to know the characters. It isn't all plot, though!

*CB James - I wonder why this part of the war gets glossed over in the history courses. My husband talks a lot about the atrocities of Stalin, but you never hear about all the deaths he caused--whether through exodus, work camps, genocide (Ukrainians), starvation, etc. I think it's estimated that he indirectly is responsible for 20 million deaths... Anyway, not a lot of history/politics in the book, but it does give an interesting perspective.

Anna said...

This book has been on my to-read list for awhile. And you're right that there's not as much talk about Stalin in WWII books.

I hope it's okay that I linked to your review on War Through the Generations.

Diary of an Eccentric