Auntie Doris’s Book Club #12: “City of Thieves” by David Benioff

city-of-thievesI don’t often read war books. War is a bad business. But this one was a ruddy good book. It is set in Russia, during the siege of Leningrad in World War Two, and although there is bravery and adventure and guns and the occasional explosion in it, it isn’t a sensational “thriller” sort of a book. Thrilling, but about real people in desperate situations, just trying to survive, not always successfully neither.
The people of Leningrad are so ruddy hungry that they have killed and eaten all their pets, are making bread out of sawdust and anything else they can find, and are boiling down the spines of books to make some sort of chewy food out of the glue that binds them together, which they call “Library Candy.” Only the top ranking officers in the secret police and the army get to eat anything decent, and even they find things that they used to take for granted hard to come by.
These two young lads, Lev, and Kolya get the chance to save themselves from certain death, by going on a mission to find a dozen eggs for the Chief of Police’s daughter’s wedding. How do you manage that when everyone around you is eating ruddy goldfish or book spines? Well, after escaping from some bugger who wants to eat them, the heroes of the story end up behind enemy lines, mixing it with the Germans, and risking their lives time after time to get their goal. Are they successful? Do they survive? I’m not telling you. You will have to read the story, or wait for the film to come out. Which it will, have no doubt about it. And when it does, and everyone is going on about it as if it’s the best thing since Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” just tell them that you heard about it ages ago from your old Auntie Doris, who knows a good read when she reads one. And send them to join my book club.
There is an interesting bit of a sub plot in the book as well… It’s about another book called “The Courtyard Hound” by the celebrated Russian author, Ushakovo.
In Chapter 17, there is a quotation from that book that I reckon my nephew Michael and some of his pop music and poetry friends would do well to think on about…

“Talent must be a fanatical mistress. She’s beautiful; when you’re with her, people watch you, they notice. But she bangs on your door at odd hours, and she disappears for long stretches, and she has no patience for the rest of your existence, your wife, your children, your friends. She is the most thrilling evening of your week. But some day she will leave you for good. One night after she’s been gone for years, you will see her on the arm of a younger man, and she will pretend not to recognise you.”

So there you go. A book that you will be thrilled by, learn a bit of history from, and a bit of wisdom too. And one that you will get the chance to show off about if you manage to read it before they make it into a film. If they haven’t got it at your local library (and thanks to the Tories cutting all the local councils’ money, they probably won’t) you had better order it from the Amazons. Or support your local bookshop. If you have one after the Amazons have finished with it.