Review: Irish Winter by John Simpson

Living in Cork, Ireland, a hotbed of resistance to British rule, makes Ian Mulroney’s life dangerous despite his peaceful beliefs. But disgusted by the brutality and shootings in the streets, he agrees to join the local IRA brigade to use his skills with medicine and learn the ways of war. There he meets Devlin Walsh. Ian has seen him before, and the impression left upon his body was not easy to ignore. He couldn’t know that Devlin felt the same. But because of the war, they are comrades first, despite their silent, budding attraction to one another. As the resistance grows and the violence escalates, Ian and Devlin fight the only way they know how, losing family and friends in their efforts to free their country. Together, they are stronger to face the next day’s struggle. Together, they are united in their belief in the hand of God. Together, they will find a way to survive the war.

Review by Erastes

Anyone looking for a adventure story, with thrills and spills, anxious moments and a growing romance which blossoms in predictable fashion to a lasting love affair and sex no matter what thrills and spills going on around them, will enjoy “Irish Winter” a lot.

However – if you know anything at all about Ireland and her history, you probably will, like me, find it a frustrating read.

I bought the book because I have lived in Ireland for many years and I’m always eager to read about earlier times. Having loved At Swim Two Boys I knew that nothing was going to come close to that, but I was still eager for more.

The characters aren’t bad.  They aren’t girly, and that’s a major point in their favour.  They talk like young men, they act like young men and they fuck like young men – there’s no lyrical descriptions and purple prose here, just wham bam and get on with it–nothing wrong with that. But they are very samey, though, and neither has their own distinct voice.  It was difficult at times to tell who was in control of the POV (there’s a lot of headhopping, and switching from third person to omniscient which doesn’t help with that.)  I personally would have liked them to be their own personalities more, and that really didn’t come across.  The secondary characters, such as Ian’s mother, and Shane, the leader of the local IRA cell come across well.

But it’s the history, and the research which really really lets this book down. I really wish people would leave this period of Irish history alone unless they really understand it.  I’ve lived there, both sets of grandparents were Irish and I don’t think I would touch the subject with a bargepole.  Like Age of Sail there’s so much to it.

I’m not going to list everything that was wrong, because that’s not the point of a review, but I’ll mention a couple of the basic, fundemental errors which should not have been done, and even the basic amount of research would have highlighted them.

First of all: Ian.  I did like him, he’s – like many young men of the time – forced into the fight even though he abhors the violence on both sides.  But he’s a single child, which is pretty unlikely for Catholic families. (So is his lover, Devlin, coincidentally. They are “unaccustomed to sleeping with other boys”  When I was in Ireland, families still had two room cottages, and all the children slept in one bed.) We are told that he’s poor, dirt poor, supporting his mother by working part time in an “apothecary” as an apprentice.  But he has jam every day, his house has a porch (this is so American, houses in England and Ireland do NOT have porches) and there’s no way he can be an apprentice chemist.  (That’s the word, after all. Apothecary is from another time. ) To be a trainee chemist (and we are told he’s six months from qualification) he’d have to have a degree, and yet he doesn’t even know what laudanum is.  Apprenticeships for apothecaries were abolished in 1822 – and I found that in minutes – so that’s blatant nonsense for a start.

His name is wrong.  There is no Ian in Roman Catholic Ireland. He’d be Sean. Many of the names are wrong – Kyle and Byron and Devlin for example – all American Irish names. Boys of this age would have RC names, and that means names of saints. Spelled in an Irish fashion .  To not know that part of the basis of the problems between Ireland and England is the Scots! And to attempt to write about the War of Independence proves a lack of research.)

There’s no mention of church at all. Impossible. Shops are open on Sunday. Pubs are open on Sunday!!  No. And on this matter, the timeline staggers around like a drunk on a Saturday night. It’s hard to keep track of when Ian is supposed to work for example.

Ian bicycles from Cork to Limerick AND BACK (a total distance of over 100 miles) in a few hours.  I’d like to see someone do that today, let alone in 1919.

And the Black and Tans – the paramilitary imports from the English army into the Royal Irish Constabulary – the main impetus for the entire plot of this book – didn’t even enter Ireland until a year LATER than this book is set.  In fact, the facts of the war in this book are made up.  That’s not entirely unusual in a historical book, of course – but when it comes to events such as this, attacks on the Cork RIC garrison, murders of civilians and reprisal killings of Black and Tans, I’d rather have read real facts OR had an author’s note in the book explaining it.  I don’t think the “fits all” disclaimer that all books have works in this instance.

That’s not to say that the events portrayed in Irish Winter aren’t similar to what actually happened.  The Tans did terrible things, killing civilians and burning villages, and putting Tralee to siege for an entire week.  So in this respect it was clear that Simpson did do quite a lot of research – so I don’t know how he managed to cock up some of it so very royally.

The cover is bloody lovely, (although wtf was with putting the flag on it’s side??) and I know that Dreamspinner have their heart in the right place – they like historicals and that alone gets a thumbs up from me.  I just wish they had an editor who could sniff out the stuff that turns a good book into one that gets thrown across the room.   For that reason I’m giving this book two and half stars and because as a story, it holds up.  There’s action and adventure, and I think that with decent research or an tough editor this book would easily have scored four stars with me, but as it is it doesn’t merit anything more than two and a half.

10 Responses

  1. Erastes, your review is ONLY your opinion and not much to it really. For your information, a LOT of research went into this book, A LOT. Second, it was edited by an IRISH editor living in IRELAND. The history of the story is factual. The very small details, are not important as it is a work of FICTION,…get it? FICTION, based on history. I wish we could all be as superior as you.

    I’m not going to argue with a person who is male one day and female the next. You need to decide your own history lady.
    Leave off!!

    • You think putting the Black and Tans into the story a year before they actually went to Ireland is a “very small detail”? Wow.

      As a reader I have to say that very small details are in fact important. If I know some small detail is wrong, not only does it trip me up on that page, it preys on my mind for the rest of the story, as I wonder what else the writer is wrong about.

      Even the best writers make mistakes and the errors creep in there, but at least they care about them. It doesn’t sound as if you do.

  2. Erastes
    I gather that you’re not happy with this book.:) I haven’t read it so can’t comment on the story, however I am always impressed by your flawless research in your own books so I assume that the comments in this review about historical accuracy are correct.

    Wow! 100 miles in a few hours on a bike? I’ll take your word for it about the distance. Well I’m going to check out a few other reviews here to see if you’re any happier.

  3. How to be a successful author 101:
    Viciously attack any reviewer who finds the slightest fault with your book.

    Nice work, Mr. Simpson. Had I any inclination to read your book before you posted that comment, it evaporated.

  4. Believe me, that’s fine. This isn’t the first hatchet job this person has done not only on me, but on a hundred other authors.

  5. Mr. Simpson,

    Based on Erastes’ review, I was actually going to buy your book, because a fast paced read was precisely what I felt like. I don’t know enough about Ireland for the innaccuracies to bother me, and was thinking “Hey, this is just up my street.” And 2.5 stars at SIN is not a bad score at all.

    However your purile behaviour and your ridiculous and unfounded insults towards Erastes have made me decide to look elsewhere. I would sincerely suggest that you either grow a thicker skin or privately publish your work — if you consider that review a hatchet job on a book in the public domain you really need to realign your perspectives. At least Erastes had the good sense to read your novel, and point out what she sees as the good and the bad. Many reviewers do not even do a book this courtesy.

    Quite frankly your immature behaviour has put you on my do not read list. Not for this novel, or for any others you may write.


  6. Chris, that is more than fine with me. Yes, I DO consider the review a hatchet job. Thanks for your input.

  7. I don’t like getting mixed reviews or getting nailed on historical inaccuracies, either; but it’s just part of the risk when you put your work before the public. Personal attacks on reviewers are uncalled-for, no matter the circumstance.

  8. John, your career as a writer will be a very short one if you do not grow up and cop it on the chin, as we say here in Australia. All writers, at some stage in their careers, receive unfavourable reviews. It’s a fact of life.

    The review you received was very fair – Erastes pointed out both the good and the bad in your story. In fact, before I read your childish response, I felt your story was enticing enough for me to lay out my hard earned cash and buy it. It sounded like a good story.

    Sorry, mate, but you’ve lost another potential reader.

  9. Historical inaccuracy aside, I really found the writing in this story to be amateurish, and made the mistake of saying so on a review at Amazon, which prompted exactly the same sort of histrionic vitriol from Mr. Simpson as he has spewed here. Even if I had enjoyed his writing, I would never again read anything he writes on the basis of his juvenile poor sportsmanship again. Reviews are subjective; what works for one reader won’t necessarily work for another. If your skin as an author is too thin to accept that you’re not going to impress 100% of the people 100% of the time, you need to find a new hobby.

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