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on 5 November 2009
I have been a fan of Henning Mankell for many years and was gratified when I realised, with the filming of three of his books for television, that I was not the only person in this burgeoning fan club. In fact, his popularity seems to grow and grow. And it is richly deserved. I have read absolutely everything he has written and have been following the exploits (bumbling or otherwise) and declining health of my hero Inspector Kurt Wallander of Ystad for about ten years. Italian Shoes is something completely different and by the time I had read the first page I knew this was a fabulously crafted tale. Translated by the wonderful Laurie Thompson, it is about a reclusive doctor who has isolated himself from society, with only a dog and cat for company, on a tiny island, or skerrie, off the coast of Sweden, south of Stockholm. The sea is frozen solid and he is taking his morning dip in the ice when he spots a figure looking at him from way out on the wastes of the frozen sea. It is a woman on an invalid walker. This would have been a heartwarming tale of forgiveness and peace in anyone's hands but Mankell's, who - as usual - twists things in such a way that leaves you wanting to give the hero a few hard slaps. That's what I love about Henning Mankell's books - they are always so unpredictable and he seems to specialise in writing about difficult men who don't understand the first thing about women. It makes me wonder! But it is a fantastic read - not to be missed by Mankell fans. I just could not put it down.
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on 8 June 2017
Book as advertised, service excellent
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on 14 March 2011
The title refers to a brilliant 90-year old Italian shoemaker who prefers the silence of the forests of northern Sweden over the bustle and noise of Rome. He embodies total commitment to a rich tradition of exactitude and detail missing in today's world of tabloids, game shows and bland, mass-produced food. He has many friends in the forest.
HM's stellar reputation rests largely on his best-selling crime books with Police Inspector Kurt Wallander, serialized by competing TV-companies from Sweden and the UK. And on the good work he does in Mozambique. This reader found the gradual escalation of violence in the Wallander series and other HM crime novels worrisome, inflationary. But HM remains deeply worried about the future of human relations in Sweden and Africa. His books on Africa are well-intentioned but not always convincing (e.g. "The Man from Beijing").

With "Italian shoes" (IT) HM has produced a masterpiece about Sweden as an autistic, downsizing state, supervising a world of lonely people packed in depressing suburban high rises and marginalising its creative dissidents to live on its islands and deep in its forests. IT is about ex-surgeon Henrik, 66, who has failed to heed his boyhood ice hockey coach's advice: "When down, get up, play on!" He made, indirectly, one terrible mistake and could have continued work if he had accepted his punishment, a warning. Instead, he retired to a small island he owns off the east coast of Sweden. For 12 years, living with an old dog and ancient cat (and an anthill growing in his living room), postman Jansson is Henrik's main link to humanity.

Until one day, during an exceptionally cold winter, he sees something from his kitchen window he can hardly believe. On the thick ice surrounding his island, he sees a woman with a wheeled walking aid. He uses his binoculars and something stirs. It is Harriet, his girlfriend lover of almost 40 years ago whom he abandoned rather callously and never bothered to contact again...
What follows in the months to come is a true invasion of women into his life. He reluctantly becomes involved in the lives of other people again, prompting him to make decisions or take action. After all, Henrik is not a nice or warm person. This novel contains coldness and warmth, individual despair and -courage, and one Kostunica-type scene of drunken celebration during the summer solstice.
This novel is about how people really behave and what they think and do under pressure. This reader is impressed. This book is literature! It is not plot-driven, but an account of an exciting year in the life of an unlovable man who continues to make mistakes, but finally does a few things right. Great novel to discuss in book readers clubs.
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Frederick Welin is a former surgeon who made a terrible mistake on the operating table. He retired from the world and when the book opens he has been living in isolation on a small Swedish island for 12 years. One day, unexpectedly, a woman arrives to see him. Harriet is a former lover whom he abruptly abandoned almost 40 years ago. Now terminally ill, she wants him to take her to a lake that he had told her about many years ago. However, it emerges that she has another motive for visiting him - one that will prove to be the catalyst for major changes in his life. Over the course of the book, he realises "that everything (he'd) thought was definite and done with was starting to change".

If this sounds dry, I can only say that it's utterly absorbing. Mankell has a lovely, spare writing style reminiscent of Helen Garner. This is a beautifully written book that is quintessentially Swedish. The characters are perfectly realized, right down to the hypochondriac postman. Reading this book is rather like watching a very satisfying piece of theatre.

I did feel that this is a novel that always keeps the reader at a slight distance. I empathized with Welin but I never particularly liked him (everytime I did start to like him he'd do something very self-centered or unpleasant). However this didn't detract from my enjoyment of the novel.

I don't usually comment on a book's cover but I did think that this one was perfectly chosen. The Swedish countryside is deeply woven into the story. I also thought that for a book originally written in Swedish, the translation appears flawless.
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Henning Mankell has become well known of late thanks to the BBC's adaptation of his acclaimed Kurt Wallander series. ITALIAN SHOES is a one-off story spanning a year in the life of a 66-year-old former surgeon living in self-imposed exile on a small island in the archipelago between Sweden and Finland, having botched an operation twelve years earlier and taking early retirement as a consequence. The tale involves the very unexpected return into his life of a woman he once loved and deserted thirty-seven years back, and three other women of widely differing circumstances who have a profound effect on his sense of being.

Mankell is a natural story-teller and his latest novel is rich in all manner of emotions. Loneliness, regrets, mortality and failure are just some of the issues covered here, told in the first-person throughout with a wonderful sense of comic timing in spite of the generally depressing themes. The central character Frederik Welin has only one friend - a hypochondriac postman - and even then he doesn't like him very much and hasn't invited him into his lonely abode in all of the twelve years that he has been delivering and collecting the post. As usual, Mankell is adept at describing the environment, in this case the often frozen sea and snow-covered terrain of a desolate region of Sweden, but he is even better at characterisation and dialogue. While the topics central to the main characters' lives are largely sad and downbeat, the overall impression from reading the story is surprisingly uplifting, and full of moments to make you smile if not laugh out loud. It must have been challenging to have chosen to write in the first-person about a man who is basically selfish and inconsiderate, because it then means that any impressions about him have to come in the form of responses to his self-centred behaviour from the characters around him - there is no judgement in the narrative as it is played out in diary-like style with only occasional snippets of inner reflection. The prose is easy and uncomplicated - compliments must go to the outstanding translation by Laurie Thompson - yet moods and events can change very abruptly without any forewarning.

I cannot think of a genre into which this book fits, but it is yet again a very intelligent piece of work by Mankell, full of serious if not profound issues that will make you pause to reflect and consider, yet relieved on countless occasions by moments of spirit-raising humour. I would guess that some of the anecdotes have been adapted from the author's real-life experiences, but he is in any case a most gifted writer, full of imagination, and I believe that anyone reading this will take something positive away from it, something to reflect on looking both backwards and forwards in time.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 13 August 2015
This was my evening companion for the time it took me to read it. I found myself longing to go to bed so I could continue reading. Only after finishing reading this book I could see why I loved it so much. It was the way in which Henning Mankell had weaved this story. I already know that I will re-read this story later on in life while hoping that this might one day be turned into a film. Did I already mentioned how much I love this book? lol I am left with the same feeling I had after reading another book of Mankell The dancing master, which is my favourite out of the Wallander series. That book also left me with the same feeling as I now experience after finishing the Italian shoes. Interesting to see how so many people reading the same book have such a different experience. So many minds, so many likes and dislikes. This one is a definite like for me. I read the hardcover version from our local library.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 20 August 2009
I was attracted to try out a book by Henning Mankell as I've been enjoying the Swedish TV series Wallander currently showing on BBCFour. Italian Shoes is very different from his crime novels and illustrates what a versatile writer he is. It's a beautifully written (and translated) elegy, full of melancholy and regret, but uplifting too. The writing wonderfully evokes the changing seasons and the rhythm of Nature as a back-drop to complicated human relationships experienced by the main character who, after years of isolation is forced by circumstance to face his past and re-establish links with and responsibilities for women he has affected by his actions (or lack of actions) when he was younger. I felt sad when I'd finished reading the book, but did feel I'd been taken on a journey that made me think about life and how we judge others.
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on 3 April 2009
This is Henning Mankell's 26th novel,amongst these
are the excellent Wallander series and the wonderfully
inventive children's books.'Italian Shoes' shows Mankell's
impressive versatility.It concerns a 66 year old surgeon,
who following an act of medical negligence has retreated
to live as a recluse on an island in a Swedish archipelago.
After 12 years of this ,the intrusion of 4 females into his
life in a short period of time force him to reassess his past,
and consider the future.The descriptions of the harsh landscape
echo the protaganist's inner state,but this is a meditation
on aging,death,self-discovery,and the consequences of not
picking oneself up straight away after one is knocked down.
A challenging and rewarding read.
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on 29 April 2010
This is a book that doesn't seem to follow the usual rules. Likeable main character? Nope. Linear and slightly predictable plot? Er, no.

Instead, what you get is something of a curate's egg. In places, this book is beautiful, insightful and fascinating. There is a sharply-defined atmosphere, a simplicity that belies some depth of feeling and understanding. Alternatively, there is a sense for the reader that the book has not quite completed anything, and everything is partially-understood and partially-divulged.

So in summary, this book is interesting but flawed. Overall, it's an enjoyable read if a somewhat frustrating one.
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on 6 January 2011
Swedish author Henning Mankell has become well known of late thanks to the BBC's adaptation of his acclaimed Kurt Wallander series (which I must admit to not having seen). "Italian Shoes", however is a one-off story spanning a year in the life of a 66-year-old former surgeon living in self-imposed exile on a small island in the Swedish archipelago, having botched an operation twelve years earlier and taken early retirement as a consequence.

At the time that we are introduced to our main protagonist, he lives alone on the island save for a cat and a dog. The tale involves the very unexpected return into his life of a woman he once loved and deserted thirty-seven years back who now has a terminal disease, and three other women of widely differing circumstances who have a profound effect on his sense of being: and upon whose lives he has - sometimes unknowingly - made a significant impact.

Mankell is a natural story-teller and his latest novel is rich in all manner of emotions. Loneliness, regret, mortality and failure are just some of the issues covered here, told in the first-person throughout with a wonderful sense of comic timing in spite of the generally depressing themes. The central character Frederik Welin has only one friend - a hypochondriac postman, who makes the most of the fact that one of his customers is an ex-medical professional - and even then he doesn't like him very much, and hasn't invited him into his lonely abode in all of the twelve years that he has been delivering and collecting the post.

That I cannot really reveal more about the intricacies of the plot itself is a testament to Mankell's compelling narrative ability - there is plenty to describe, but I would be spoiling the book for potential readers if I tried to focus on any individual elements...(and perhaps this is a reflection of Mankells' credentials as a detective story writer).

What I can say is that Mankell is adept at describing the environment, in this case the often frozen sea and snow-covered terrain of a desolate region of Sweden, but he is even better at characterisation and dialogue. While the topics central to the main characters' lives are largely sad and downbeat, the overall impression from reading the story is surprisingly uplifting, and full of moments to make you smile if not laugh out loud. It must have been challenging to have chosen to write in the first-person about a man who is basically selfish and inconsiderate, because it then means that any impressions about him have to come in the form of responses to his self-centred behaviour from the characters around him - there is no judgement in the narrative as it is played out in diary-like style with only occasional snippets of inner reflection. The prose is easy and uncomplicated (compliments must go to the outstanding translation by Laurie Thompson) yet moods and events change very abruptly without any forewarning.

I cannot think of a genre into which this book fits, but it is certainly a very intelligent piece of work by Mankell, full of serious and profound issues that will make you pause to reflect and consider, yet relieved on countless occasions by moments of spirit-raising humour. I believe that anyone reading this will take something positive away from it, something to reflect on looking both backwards and forwards in time.
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