Sunday, 5 August 2012

City of Thieves - Game of Thrones meets Leningrad

City of Thieves by David Benioff (2008: Viking) Set in a starving Leningrad during WWII, circumstances put two very different strugglers together as they are sent into the countryside to collect a dozen eggs. Or die.
Sometimes you buy a book after a recommendation. Sometimes you see a good review, recognise the author, get your eye caught by the title. And sometimes you hurriedly grab a book off the shelf at WH Smith because you’re about to get on a plane and you need one more book to put in your bag and this one looks about the right size and it’s been marked down from the original price.
And sometimes that works out, and sometimes it doesn’t.
I may have stumbled on him by accident, but David Benioff is a bigger deal than my first encounter with him suggested. If I’d looked closer, I’d have seen that “David Benioff is a Hollywood screenwriter...” (which is a pretty cool start to a bio. It’s a horrible bio. One that makes me insanely jealous. After the Hollywood screenwriter punch comes, “He lives in Los Angeles and New York City” – he’s shot to the top of my life-swapping wish list). You might also recognise his name from Game of Thrones. He’s the lead writer on many episodes of the big budget HBO success.
David Benioff - "Hollywood screenwriter"
But at the time, I knew none of this. My jealousy didn’t get in the way. I opened this book with zero expectations, a clear mind, and on holiday. That’s the best way to open any book. No distractions, no preconceptions, just a straight and un-muddled connection between Benioff’s words and my imagination. It’s what books deserve - the chance to be experienced on their own merits.
And the merits of City of Thieves are many. It read like a book written by a Hollywood screenwriter. Benioff creates big ballsy stages. Detailed, but not in a granular boring sort of way. More in a glowing, fiery way. He introduces recognisable characters, but with enough held back about each of them to be revealed slowly as the story moves on. You feel like you’re getting to know them, understand the different sides of their personality - all the while with a firm grip of their central, clear, un-shaking motivation. The plot too, the plot feels Hollywood. It’s gritty, shocking, twisting.
All of this thoroughly entertained. It kept me gripped and meant I put the book down intent on recommending it to others. It means when I look at it on my bookshelf, I want to read it again.
But then that other side of me kicked in – the side that’s always a little uncomfortable when Hollywood engages with war themes. The side that’s not sure it’s an appropriate topic to mine for entertainment. The side that feels people in war should be shown with more complexity than easily graspable film characters.
Sometimes it’s easy. The ones that glorify war. The ones that hold it out as a great adventure, with absolute good and absolute evil. They’re easier to be sure about, easier to denounce, easier to take the moral high ground against. But Benioff doesn’t do that. There’s no glory here. It has a cinematic quality, but it’s clear Benioff is making a genuine effort to present a bit of realism, put forth the horror without the gloss. It’s a story with relevance for Benioff, and he treats it with respect.
I could write another thousand words of this. It’s a whole thing that I can never make my mind up about. But it’s Sunday morning, and you don’t want to hear about it. Next time we’re around a table and there’s a drink or two coming, let’s chat it through. But not now. Now let’s stick to the book.
And in the GBR spirit, I need to focus on one thing. Not the moral ambiguity of war as entertainment. Not the thin line between lest-we-forget and war-voyeurism. Just enjoyment. Just the was-this-book-a-good-use-of-time scale.
And on that measure, I direct you back to paragraph seven of this review.
I know, I know, three 8s in a row. I was going to give this something else, but it’s a genuine 8. It deserves an 8. It’s not Benioff’s fault there’s been two 8s in the last couple of weeks.
Also, the book I’m reading at the moment is pretty dire. So I think GBR’s recent run of above-average reading may be coming to an end. Might as well stock up on 8s while we can.

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