The right book can instantly transport you to anywhere — and anytime — in the world. Every Thursday, we recommend one of our favorite books with a strong sense of place so you can see the sights, meet remarkable people, go on exciting adventures, and feel big feelings. Bonus: You don't even have to put on pants.
This post is part of our 'Weekend Getaway' series.
This gripping, moving novel has dual settings in a Russian town (industrial, insular, drug-infused) and small-town Louisiana (all-American) — both dominated by the oil refineries that employ their residents and shape their lives. A coming-of-age character study and a legit murder mystery, this novel is as entertaining as it is emotionally charged. It will leave you feeling bruised and a bit breathless.
Our hero is 15-year-old Ilya, a gifted student whose aptitude for the English language is about to change his life. His perpetual companion is his brother Vladimir, a few years older, and a troubled young man whose love for his brother is as damaging as it is pure.
The brothers divide their time between going online at the Internet Kebab and watching bootleg VHS tapes of American films. They dream of moving to America like their favorite action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme: ‘[H]e’s American now. He moved there. And you know who he brought with him? His brother. They live in a mansion right on fucking Hollywood Boulevard.’
Their (fictional) hometown of Berlozhniki in northwestern Russia would be unremarkable were it not for two factors: the shocking, brutal murders of three young women and the oil refinery that dominates the landscape and the lives of the townspeople.
When Ilya is chosen for an exchange program in Louisiana, it seems that the boys’ American dream will come true. But then Vladimir, caught in the grubby vortex of the town’s underground drug scene, confesses to the girls’ murders and is thrown in jail.
Convinced of his brother’s innocence, Ilya commits himself to finding the real murderer, even as he’s navigating his new life in the small town of Leffie, Louisiana, with his host family — and exploring the first fragile whispers of romance with their oldest daughter Sadie.
This novel sneaks up on you, presenting as a mystery thriller while nimbly exploring big topics like the corrosive nature of secrets and hope, the sadness of saving yourself while you watch others flounder, the need to belong while also standing apart.
Ilya had never had faith in anything except that knowledge could be gained. Numbers in a column added up to something. If you stared at a word, if you sounded out the letters and visualized its meaning, it could be learned. And there was Vladimir. Vladimir, who could not be counted on for anything, who was untrustworthy in a million little ways, but who had still managed to inspire Ilya’s faith. — Lydia Fitzpatrick
This literary murder mystery (352 pages) was published in April of 2019 by Penguin. The book takes you to a small town in northwestern Russia. Melissa read Lights All Night Long and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.
Bookshop.org is an online bookstore with a mission to financially support independent bookstores and give back to the book community.
Top image courtesy of apiguide/Shutterstock.
Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!
Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.
If you like the work we do, you can help support us through our Patreon! That'll unlock additional content, too — like Mel's recipe for Banh Mi Bowls, and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.
This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.
We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.
This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.
Content on this site is © 2021 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.