By J. Ryan Stradal. (Viking/Pamela Dorman Books, 320 pages, $25.)

At first glance, J. Ryan Stradal's debut novel, "Kitchens of the Great Midwest," looks like one of the many books out there in which recipes mingle with prose, with each depending a bit too much on the other to lure a reader to the end. It's not, yet the story is driven by food — or more precisely, by those who prepare it, grow it, shoot it, curate it or let it control their lives.

Stradal introduces us to Eva Thorvald at her birth, then through chapters variously named "Lutefisk," "Venison," "Walleye" or "Golden Bantam," until she emerges as one of the best chefs of her generation. Yet the book isn't about Eva as much as the people who introduce her to these ingredients, who fall under her spell even as she passes through and out of their lives, though never cruelly.

It's like that famous recipe for Chicken Marbella that combines prunes, green olives, capers and chicken — you wonder how everything is going to come together in the end, and it's blessedly not as neat as you expect. The strength of Stradal's characters is in their familiarity, due in part to his North Dakota upbringing. The dialogue is effortless, genuine and often amusing.

Pat Prager's story, told in a chapter called "Bars," rings true on so many levels, it's practically a bell choir. Truth be told, there are a few recipes in her chapter. How could there not be, right? Stradal has said he was inspired by his grandmother's Lutheran church cookbook. But he's clearly grown up in a culture in which food has taken on the trappings of religion. Or, if not that, least of a spirituality that offers salvation to some, and a driving hunger to others.

J. Ryan Stradal will be at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., at 4 p.m. Aug. 2 and Barnes & Noble Galleria in Edina at 7 p.m. Aug. 3.

KIM ODE, Features writer


By Daniel Silva. (Harper, 496 pages, $27.99.)

"The English Spy" is simply delicious. If you're a fan of perennial No. 1 bestselling author Daniel Silva, it's a must-read. If you're not a fan, you should be.

The 15th novel in the Gabriel Allon series might be the best yet. Silva weaves an intriguing tale of modern espionage that begins with the shocking death of a British princess but that ultimately has its roots in the story of a mercenary bombmaker with decades-old ties to the IRA, Hezbollah and Al-Qaida. As the story unfolds, Allon, the legendary Israeli spy and "angel of vengeance," tracks the bombmaker from West Belfast to Lisbon, while Silva provides enough twists and turns to keep readers guessing until the end.

Although the book serves perfectly well as a stand-alone novel, fans of the series will gladly welcome the return of mysterious, English-born assassin Christopher Keller and tidbits of plot from previous books. A sign of how delightful "The English Spy" was? After closing the book I immediately bought or borrowed every single previous book in the series (most of which I've already read) in order to reconnect the dots on various threads of the story. Highly recommended.


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