Summer Reading: ‘The Boy at the Top of the Mountain’ and ‘City of Thieves’

Although these books are both set during WWII, they are completely different from one another. They are also both completely wonderful. Read them!

24737113The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne

Like everyone else, I read Boy in the Striped Pajamas when it first came out. But then I forgot all about John Boyne until recently when I saw a review of A History of Loneliness over at The Paperback Princess and Stay Where You Are and Then Leave at Your Daughter’s Bookshelf – both very positive. So, when I saw this new one, I jumped at the chance to read it.

This book is about a boy named Pierrot. He lived in France with his parents until his father disappeared and his mother died. He was a sweet, curious boy who had a good friend named Anshel. When Pierrot was sent away after his mother dies, they swore to never forget one another and to write letters. He had a short stop at an orphanage before he was sent for by his Aunt Beatrix.

Beatrix is the Housekeeper at the Berghof. She believes she can keep Pierrot safe, and for his own protection, she tells him that his name is now Pieter and he can no longer talk about or write to his Jewish friend in France. Despite these curious changes in his life, Pierrot is relatively happy on the mountain. But, as time goes on, the master of the house takes a shine to the boy, and begins to ‘mould’ him into a ‘good’ German. Day by day he becomes more Pieter and less Pierrot.

It’s terrifying to see how easy it is to influence a child any way you want; the child believes they are in the right and even feel confused when others don’t see things the same way. In the case of Pierrot, it was interesting to see how his early experiences of being bullied or picked on made him yearn to have the kind of control over people that he was seeing around him. Even though at every point, you are yelling at Pierrot to stop, you can also see why he doesn’t necessarily want to stop. Power is intoxicating.

He had never felt so proud in all his life. He thought of Kurt Kotler again, and realized how wonderful it would be to have such authority; to be able to take what you wanted, when you wanted, from whomever you wanted, instead of always having things taken from you.

I mean, this is a kids’ book, so I didn’t expect things to get as intense as they did. (Really intense.) But, Boyne does not hold back. Things get uncomfortable, and you, as the reader, might try to reason with/yell at the characters, to no avail. But keep reading, because the ending is perfect. You won’t be able to stop, even if you try. You will have to know how poor Pierrot is going to turn out.

I wish I could tell you more about what happens, but that would ruin it for you. I urge you to read it yourself, then come back and talk to me about it! I will be passing this along to my daughter next, in the hope that she will do just that. I’ll leave you with Eva’s impression of Boyne’s skill as a storyteller: “What Boyne has done here, create a story about an incredibly dark period in human history that is suitable for children and adults, is no small feat.

I will definitely be seeking out more of his books from now on.

*Thanks to Random House Canada for sending me a copy of this book for review! of Thieves by David Benioff

I’ve seen this book around on blogger lists a few times, and although I took it out as part of my big stack of library books, I wasn’t sure I would get to it. But I did. And it is the source Β of my most recent book hangover. I was sad when it ended (I am still sad), and I was not ready to leave Kolya and Lev behind yet.

So, what is this book about? A 17-year-old boy gets caught looting. The punishment for this is death. A 20-year-old soldier gets caught for desertion. The punishment for this is death. But, neither of them die. Instead, they are partnered up and asked to go on a special errand for the Colonel; to find a dozen eggs by Friday for his daughter’s wedding cake. Doesn’t sound too hard, does it? Except that they are in Leningrad in 1941; there is no food and the people are starving. How are they going to find a dozen eggs in 5 days? How can you not want to immediately run out and get this book?

Things I liked loved:

  • This is a WWII novel that will make you laugh – something that does not come along every day.
  • The setting of war-starved Leningrad (and surrounding area) was new for me.
  • The many literary references and discussions that take place while Lev (the son of a poet) and Kolya (a university literature student) are on their search for eggs.
  • Lev. Hard on the outside, squishy on the inside. Conscious of his large nose and small frame, especially when Kolya recounts for him his many female encounters. Wants to prove himself brave and worthy.

… contrary to popular belief, the experience of terror does not make you braver. Perhaps, though, it is easier to hide your fear when you’re afraid all the time.

So many great Russians endured long stretches in prison. That night I learned I would never be a great Russian.

The loneliest sound in the world is other people making love.

  • Kolya. Apparently fearless. Bordering on arrogant, but so charming that he gets away with it. Obsessed with women, and the number of days since he last had a bowel movement. Hilarious. Ultimately, generous and kind.

“It’s been nine days for me. I’ve been counting. Nine days! When it finally happens, I’ll have a big party and invite the best-looking girls from the university.”… “Invite the Colonel’s daughter.”… “I will, absolutely. My sh*t party will be much better than this wedding she’s planning.”

In spite of all his irritating qualities, I couldn’t help liking a man who despised a fictional character with such passion.

  • Their friendship; it’s beautiful to watch it grow from nothing to everything.
  • Their adventures. And what adventures they had in the space of 5 days (as I guess one would in the middle of a war). Cannibals luring them into their house, trudging through the woods in knee-deep snow warding off starvation and hypothermia, running into a grumpy group of partisans, just barely escaping German soldiers only to end up joining their group of war prisoners, a high-stakes game of chess with a high-ranking German Officer. To name a few.
  • All of this, only to come so close. Gah. I don’t even want to talk about it. Except to say that the ending was just right, even though I’d like to change it. (Will I ever get over it?)
  • Great last line! I wish I had thought of that when I first met my husband.

Happily taking recommendations for similar books (are there any?). Has anyone read any of Benioff‘s other books?

44 thoughts on “Summer Reading: ‘The Boy at the Top of the Mountain’ and ‘City of Thieves’

    • Naomi says:

      I plan on getting my hands on the rest of his books for young people! I wouldn’t mind trying out his adult books, either. πŸ™‚
      Glad to hear I’ve enticed you!

  1. susanosborne55 says:

    Dozens of readers head to the nearest bookshop to check out that last line… That, and a book about World War Two set in Leningrad that makes you laugh and the Benioff becomes unmissable!

  2. The Paperback Princess says:

    Thanks for the link! And nice new look! I love it!
    I’m super intrigued by the Benioff book – I had no idea that Game of Thrones David Benioff also wrote books.
    I’m so glad that you liked the John Boyne book! You seriously need to read A History of Loneliness. I’m so with you about how terrifying it was to watch the influence on a child. I constantly forgot how *young* Pieter was, the way he was acting seemed so adult. And yes, that ending!
    Two books with perfect endings, how lucky!

    • Naomi says:

      And, I had no idea that the author David Benioff was the writer behind the Game of Thrones series until I read the book and looked him up. Haha!
      I’m planning to read more John Boyne. Frustratingly, our new library still isn’t open! Soon…
      Both of these books were really just so good. And, I couldn’t believe how funny City of Thieves was considering what it was about!
      Thanks for commenting on my blog’s new look. I was feeling nervous about it, especially because I went with a daisy rather than something bookish. But it was just so pretty… πŸ™‚

  3. JacquiWine says:

    Interesting reviews, Naomi. I read Boyne’s History of Loneliness last year when a member of my book group picked it as his choice for the month. It’s not the sort of novel I would have chosen myself, but that’s all part of the experience with these groups, trying something outside of your normal sphere of reading. Anyway, it’s a thought-provoking book, one that sparked quite a bit of discussion within our group. I think you’d click with it. πŸ™‚

  4. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    This is the second positive blog review of City of Thieves I’ve read this week, which is weird since it’s an older book. The universe is telling me something! I think I’m going to have to read it.

  5. Bina says:

    Oh themed reading basically!😁 I read Boy in the Striped Pyjamas of course but it made me bawl and so I stayed away from his other worksπŸ™ˆ But it sounds like he would achieve it again with this one.
    And I’ve seen City of Thieves around, it’s got such a great cover! Glad to hear it was also funny, that is such a feat on the part of the author! Will you continue with the WWII reading? I think I’ve read the obvious ones, but one on my list is a book I think would maybe appeal to you then. Mit Canadian but about a Black German during WWII: Destined to Witness by Massaquoi.

    • Naomi says:

      Oh, that one sounds excellent – just added it to my list!
      I was at a loss for what to read next after City of Thieves. I thought maybe another WWII novel might do it, but then changed my mind and went with the much lesser romantic subplot theme and read Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf. It was just the thing. πŸ™‚

      • Bina says:

        Ha that sounds like a great break, I think I read something by Haruf ages ago…The book was green πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ Ahhh it was Plainsong! I remember enjoying it, but it wasn’t lighthearted. Anyway, glad you found something perfect to read!

  6. Read Diverse Books says:

    I’m glad to hear that the John Boyne book is still suitable for your daughter despite how dark and intense it is! I did enjoy The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and this seems to tread somewhat similar territory. You made me so curious to know how Pierrot turns out, but given that this is a children’s book, I suspect positive ending more than a bleak one. Fingers crossed!

    I’ve actually not seen City of Thieves around, or perhaps I just glossed over it, but the brief intro you provided was definitely fascinating! So I’m curious, again, to see what kind of deal or circumstances lead a death sentence to be changed to a hunt for a dozen eggs! Looks like you had a great pair of books to read!
    How much longer do you have until you have to return your big stack of library books? Did the due day already pass?

    • Naomi says:

      Haha, yes, the original due date was August 2nd, but the library still hasn’t re-opened (no surprise there!). Now they are saying mid to late August, but who knows… I am starting to get antsy, though. I have a big list of books I want to start requesting!! (However, we’ll be gone again for another chunk of time, so it will fly by quickly, I’m sure.)

  7. Lynn @ Smoke & Mirrors says:

    Oh, Naomi! I loved loved loved Our Souls at Night! That’s one I actually got reviewed, too! I read City of Thieves years ago and LOVED it! I would love to reread it! I always wanted a sequel!! I felt he left it wide open for one! I had no idea he was involved with Game of Thrones, I guess that might help explain the lack of new books! I own The Boy in the Striped Pajamas but have yet to read it. I assumed I would enjoy his writing, however. So glad you read the Benioff and enjoyed it!

    • Naomi says:

      Oh, such good books. πŸ™‚
      You’ve made a good point about Benioff. Forget The Game of Thrones – I think he should go back and write more books!
      I hope you end up enjoying The Boy In the Striped Pajamas. I really liked that one, too!

  8. Carolyn O says:

    The second book is calling to me—and I just googled the author’s name (I knew he sounded familiar, even though I’m not a GoT fan). Great summer picks!

    • Naomi says:

      I didn’t know about The Game of Thrones thing either until I googled him after reading the book. As Lynn pointed out, the reason why he hasn’t written more novels!
      I think you would like it – I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t. πŸ™‚

  9. buriedinprint says:

    I love it when books for young people take on horrific topics that I would probably cower from if they were in a novel written for adults, and they handle it so gracefully and beautifully that I wonder why I avoid such topics in books. Still, I haven’t read the Boyne novel. The Benioff has been wholeheartedly recommened to me by one other friend as well, so now I must see if the library will present me with an irresistible paperback which I renew for weeks and weeks (in lieu of a library closure/reopening). You do make it sound exceptionally good!

  10. The Cue Card says:

    Yes, I read City of Thieves years ago and really liked it and I’ve been waiting for his follow-up book for quite awhile. I’m still waiting. There are a few Rough or graphic scenes in the book as I recall. Yikes. But somehow Benioff puts the reader right there in Leningrad’s winter in 1941. It’s quite a story and an adventure. I found it pretty riveting. and I might have to reread it as it’s been quite awhile. It’s a gem.

    • Naomi says:

      This is one definitely worth re-reading. And, I couldn’t believe how he could talk about such horrible things and then make me laugh!

  11. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    I’ve been disgracefully slow to read City of Thieves, despite reading maaaaany recommendations for it. My mum bought a copy at least six years ago, probably a good bit longer, and I’ve had every opportunity to borrow and read it. Soon!

    • Naomi says:

      Then make sure you have a nice one to follow it up with, because this one will break your heart while making you laugh at the same time. πŸ™‚

  12. DoingDewey says:

    I’m guessing I’m way late noticing this since I’m so behind on blog reading, but beautiful new layout! I really love the header image. These both sound like fascinating reads.

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks Katie! And, you’re not the only one feeling behind. I’ve been slacking off this summer for sure. But, I’m feeling excited about catching up a bit once the kids are back in school. πŸ™‚

  13. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel says:

    The Boyne book looks interesting. I loved The Boy in Striped Pajamas. When I say that I mean the movie. I haven’t read the book yet. This one is anther intense read you say? Oh my! I have not heard of the second book. I am intrigued as you describe it as a World war book that makes you laugh. That sure requires some masterful writing indeed.

  14. TheLiterary Hoarders says:

    You definitely have to read The History of Loneliness and The Absolutist!! So, so good!!

    I have read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas too, but now I’m going to be The Boy at the Top of the Mountain for sure!

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