It’s a bright  moon outside, and from the window of my house I can see the skeletal gray of the factory, the banners draped like sashes and the deep arterial red of Mandarin characters demanding change …

“I’m standing by the window thinking about Jews and shoes and this beautiful Chinese woman asleep behind me.”


The Emperor of Shoes, Spencer Wise’s debut novel, opens with protagonist Jewish–Bostonian Alex Cohen, ‘a YouTube hero in the Chinese Revolution’, contemplating just how he’s got to where he is. And of course, the only way for us to find out is for Alex to look back …

After taking up the reins of his father’s shoemaking business, twenty-something Alex finds himself in Guangdong, South China. The reality of his situation, of running a foreign business using local workers in a country on the cusk of great economic and political change, quickly hits him. As he begins to realise just what his father has had to do in order to maintain the business, and witnesses first-hand the conditions under which their employees work, Alex’s relationship with his father begins to shift. When Alex meets the fascinating Ivy, whose grandfather educated local women about ‘liberating their feet’ and who has her own political and social agenda, his eyes are opened further to the changing world about him and the role he can play in it.

The Emperor of Shoes is interesting on many levels, not least because it takes a timely look at some of the many impacts of globalisation on emerging nation-states. Like Lisa Ko’s excellent The Leavers, it examines the exploitation of workers, although in this case in China itself by an American-owned company. Similarly, like Ko, Wise explores a conflicted parent–child relationship, here, that of father and son, Fedor Cohen representing the conservative old guard and Alex the liberating modern.

For me though, the book is of particular note as a seemingly unusual addition to the No Exit list, established primarily on stellar indie crime fiction, and one of which I’m a great fan. And possibly this is a reflection of things to come, a wish to reach a wider, more mainstream audience. But that’s an aside.

The Emperor of Shoes is an assured first novel and Wise weaves his story of naivety and greed in modern China with both flair and a healthy dose of humour.

Our prediction is he’s a writer to watch.






The Emperor of Shoes | Spencer Wise | No Exit |

26 July 2018 | hardback | £16.99 | also available in other formats












Acknowledgements: Quoted text from p. 7 The Emperor of Shoes © Spencer Wise 2018. This review is published as part of the virtual book tour organised by Anne Cater to whom we extend our thanks. Many thanks also to the publisher for supplying a book proof and the above jacket image. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved.


Music to listen to: The revolution will not be televised‘, Gil Scott-Heron; ‘What’s going on‘, Marvin Gaye; ‘Redemption Song‘, Bob Marley; ‘Revolution‘, Arrested Development; ‘The message‘, Grandmaster Flash


Food to graze on while you’re reading: ‘Eat, drink and make merry – tasting summer‘; ‘Fava me with love


Also of interest: Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Dialogue’s brilliant debut; ‘20 books this summer challenge – lovely words‘, no 14 on the list; ‘Soundings – in search of one father’s war‘ (interview, artist Kate Gritton); ‘The stark beauty of William Shaw’s Salt Lane‘; ‘Johana Gustawsson’s Keeper –indie publisher, Orenda, does it again‘; ‘Elder’s last stand – John Harvey’s Body and Soul;  ‘We should all be feminists’; ‘Jane Harper’s stylish debut – The Dry’.


This review is © 2018 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.