Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #82: City of Thieves by David Benioff

One of the most perfectly crafted novels I’ve read in a long time, City of Thieves is a multi-layered story told both simply and irresistibly beautifully. It is the tale of a survivor of the German siege of Leningrad during WWII, told to his grandson about a few days spent as a 17-year-old teen in the company of an AWOL Russian soldier, learning about friendship, sex, courage, patriotism, heartache, and love.

Lev, the virginal teenaged Jewish son of a poet father who was “disappeared” by the Soviet secret police under Stalin, is living alone in besieged and starving Leningrad after his mother and sister flee to the countryside. When he is caught searching the body of a dead German parachutist for food, he is tossed into prison to await execution—the wartime punishment for looting. Thrown into the cell with him is Kolya, a 20-year-old blond, blue-eyed literature-spouting hunk of young Russian manhood who got caught AWOL while searching for some female “company.” Execution is also the punishment for desertion. However, both Lev and Kolya are given a reprieve by a high-level Army colonel whose daughter is about to get married, but only if they can do the impossible–bring back a dozen eggs in four days, in time to make her a traditional wedding cake. This in a city whose population has already eaten its pets, and is down to eating shoe leather.

The two set out, first to scour the Leningrad black market to no avail, and then to cross German lines in search of a reputed farm with reputed chickens laying reputed eggs. Their adventures are many and gruesome, including encounters with cannibals, land mines, Russian partisans, and getting taken prisoners-of-war by the Nazis. Throughout, Kolya is determined to teach Lev the art of wooing a woman to his bed, and we are treated to his and Lev’s many and varied opinions on Russia’s vast literary body of works, the art of chess playing, and the mystic connection between constipation and winning war.

If this sounds like a comedy, be assured that it isn’t. It is a tale of the horrors of war, of death, of sacrifice, but it is leavened by Benioff’s lively wit, meticulous research into the city of Leningrad, and learned appreciation of Russia literary tradition. It is most of all a window into the human soul, as we follow Lev in his search for a dozen eggs and learn with him all there is to know about fear and courage.

ElCicco #CBR5 review #40: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy


I read this novel for the first time 20 years ago when I was living in Moscow. Back then, we didn’t have internet access, laptops, or cell phones, and over there, I didn’t have TV or radio either. What I had was a stack of novels (in English) left behind by other Americans and War and Peace was one of them. I would read it at night and I remember absolutely loving it. I decided that it was time to reread and see if my impressions from 20 years ago would hold up. Here goes.

War and Peace is a sweeping epic Russian soap opera with lots of boring commercials. The novel focuses on three noble families — the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs and the Bezukhovs — and their lives during the Napoleonic Wars (1805-1813). An historical novel, it includes real historical figures such as Napoleon, Tsar Alexander, and General Kutuzov. The fictional part of the story is great stuff, genuine soap opera fare: rich beautiful people trying to make good marriages and/or spoil others’, girls attending their first balls, guys hanging out and getting in trouble with the law, infidelity, duels, financial ruin and desperate deals. One of the main characters is Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a fabulously wealthy (and deathly ill) aristocrat. Pierre is constantly searching for the meaning of life (through gambling, drinking, whoring and eventually the Free Masons). Helene Kuragin is the gorgeous socialite/gold digger with questionable morals. Is she beautiful but stupid (the words of her husband) or is she very clever (society’s view)? Prince Andrew Bolkonsky is heir of an esteemed noble family but unhappy in his marriage and eager to leave it behind through military service. Andrew’s sad sack sister Princess Mary is kind but plain. Suitors are willing to overlook that given how incredibly wealthy she is. Mary is also deeply religious and roundly abused by her father, but in her kind and self-deprecating way, she forgives dad and continually offers her suffering up to God. Natasha Rostov is the lively and lovely daughter of a noble family that is falling on hard times. Her brother Nicholas feels constrained by his family obligations and looks forward to military service and a life of camaraderie and honor in the Hussars. A couple of my favorite characters are Anatole Kuragin and Dolokhov. They are the cads, the rakes, the amoral young men leading lives of dissipation and hedonism. Their scenes are riveting reading. They’re truly bad men.

As a social commentary, War and Peace shows the lives of the rich in all their glamor and ugliness. These are people who reside in St. Petersburg and Moscow when not on their country estates, who speak mainly French and spend a lot of time making advantageous connections for themselves and their children. They attend salons and learn what witty things to say and sport the latest fashions. They gamble a lot and lose more than they can afford. And it is from this pool of people that government and military leaders are chosen, with merit not often playing much of a role in that process.

What throws readers off this novel, in my opinion, is Tolstoy’s coverage of the wars and his long-winded explications of military strategy and history. When Tolstoy follows Prince Andrew and Nicholas Rostov into battle in 1805 and then again in 1812, putting these characters into the action, the descriptions of the battles come alive and we care about the end result (even though you know how it all ends historically speaking). But Tolstoy goes on for hundreds of pages giving the histories of other battles, Napoleon’s exploits in Europe, political history and, in the epilogues, explaining what has been wrong with the way historians do their work. It. is. boring. And I say this as an historian of Russian history. God knows I tried to stay in there through it all, but by about book 10 (15 books and 2 epilogues in this monster), I started to skim the stuff that didn’t directly involve our main characters. And those poor people endure some horrible stuff — deaths (of favorite characters, dammit!), the evacuation of Moscow and the burning of the city, imprisonment. Not to mention the incompetence of their own rulers and generals. The one thing that sticks with me out of the political/military history stuff is that the Tsar was a ditz and his generals were too busy trying to get favor for themselves to really pull it together for Russia. Thank heaven for the Russian winter, strained supply lines, disgruntled French soldiers and Kutuzov’s ability to get the Russians out of Moscow before Napoleon arrived.

So overall, while I mostly enjoyed reading the novel, I think I enjoyed it less than I did 20 years ago. Perhaps not having access to so many diversions back then played a role or perhaps living in the city where much of the action occurs made it more immediate for me. It is a great, sweeping story, full of romance and, in typical Tolstoy fashion, it does end with some of our characters finding meaning not in the material things of life but in their faith in God. And not being so shitty toward the serfs. It still really annoys me that my favorite character died though.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #73: The English Girl by Daniel Silva

This is a well-plotted Silva thriller, in which the bad guys this time is the corrupt new Russia under a beast of a president who remains nameless but is clearly meant to be Putin. Oh, and the pathetic world of dirty British politics (and morals) is on full display here too, a target which I found I enjoyed rather more than Silva’s tedious black-hatting of the Arabs in most of his novels.

Beautiful young English girl Madeline Hart is kidnapped during a vacation in colorful Corsica at a moment when she is rising to the top of her political career. Despite intensive searches, not a clue is found and after months, her disappearance begins to fade from the media. And that’s when a ransom note arrives for the British Prime Minister, giving him 7 days to pay a ransom for her or else. Turns out Madeline has been in a clandestine love affair with the married PM, and retired Israeli spy and master assassin Gabriel Allon is called upon by an old friend and British spymaster to do his magic and find and get her back. Allon ends up in an unusual alliance with the assassin who spared his and his wife’s lives in a previous Silva novel, and the two back each other up in unraveling the story of who is behind the kidnapping. Of course, Allon’s Mossad team is fully deployed as well, always a welcome addition to the plot. And finally, Silva adds just a touch of mysticism to ratchet up the tension.

There’s a lot of psychological manipulation on all sides going on, which gives lots of added nuance to Silva’s always masterful political thrillers, and a couple of major plot twists which had me gasping in disbelief. For fear of giving away too much, I’ll just say that Allon appears more vulnerable in this novel than in others I’ve read, which makes him an even more appealing protagonist. Silva’s politics are getting more interesting as well, and with Allon “back in the saddle” by the end, I think we can all safely anticipate more good reading to come. Hi ho Silva! (sorry about that! Couldn’t resist!)

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR5 Review #22 – City of Silence by Kim Wright

This is the third book in the City of Mystery series, and takes place in St. Petersburg (Russia, not the place where I live). The Scotland Yard forensics team heads to Russia at Queen Victoria’s request. Her favorite granddaughter, Alix, has fallen in love with a member of the Russian imperial family, and Vicki’s not happy about it. She has already lost one granddaughter to Russia, Ella, Alix’s sister. Ella’s letters seem to be a bit too cheerful, and the queen is skeptical. She was already suspicious, and sent Ella a “lady in waiting,” who is actually a spy.

The imperial family is all staying at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, and is planning for a grand ball to celebrate Tchaikovsky’s triumphant return. There is to be a performance of Romeo & Juliet – or there was, until the leads were murdered in the theater. Ella doesn’t mention this to Victoria, but the spy reports on it. So Victoria decides to head there – with Alix and the team – to show Alix that Russia is not the place for her.

The team starts to investigate the murders, and figure out that there is a larger plot involving the student activists, including a young man named Vlad (see if you can guess who he turns out to be).

Thanks to my useless American education, I know next to nothing about Russian history. I had never heard of Ella, and looked her up. She turns out to have been really interesting (and Alix’s real name is Alexandra, so we know how her life ends up). I like books that make me want to do research. But, Ella – she married the Tsar’s younger brother, who might have been gay. Their marriage may never have been consummated. He was assassinated in a really horrible way, and she forgave the man who did it, and tried to prevent the man’s execution. Then she renounced all of her wealth, became a nun, and started a hospital. Then when the Bolsheviks took over, they arrested her, threw her down a mine shaft with a bunch of other people, threw in some grenades and some brush, set the brush on fire, and left. Not a great way to go.

So the book is fine, the story is fine, but the best part for me was learning about Princess Elisabeth of Hess and by Rhine, also known as Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna. She was canonized by the Russian Orthodox church, and she is one of the 20th century martyrs honored at Westminster Abbey. I’m not sure if it’s out there, but someone needs to tell her story.