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Book Review – Life of Choice: Parts 1 – 5

TBimage2A Life of Choice by Tom Benson is a five-part series about a young recruit to the Royal Corps of Signals of the British Army. In a bit of a departure from my usual blog format, the reader will find my individual reviews for each part of the series listed in chronological order. Apart from for the final part, the subsequent reviews to pt1 of the series are you will notice, shorter and less detailed, the reason being that I’d simply be repeating myself from the more overall review of pt1 in the series.

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There are many authors who have drawn on their past military experience to write both fictional and non-fiction accounts of their military careers and quite a few who have relied purely on research and their imagination.  

Quite often, though by no means IASDpicalways,  such books will either lack the authenticity of genuine military experience or be steeped in realism and authenticity only to be let down by the execution of the writing. A Life of Choice falls into neither category having been written by a man with not only over twenty years experience as a soldier, but who has also been perfecting his writing skills for the past ten years, having read and written in multiple genres. 

In addition to the above, Tom Benson is a founding member and contributor to the IASD Fb writing group and its accompanying website – www.indieauthorsupportanddiscussion.com

See also:

Twitter – @TomBensonWriter – Website – www.tombensonauthor.com

Blog – www.tombensoncreative.com

 

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A Life of Choice – Part One

Innocence and Inebriation

timberwolfamazonA trip down memory lane that has you rooting for the young would-be soldier… loved it!

pt1From what I understand this is the first of several parts to an ongoing saga of the life of a young serviceman. When Jim Faulkner joins the Royal Corps of Signals he does so as a shy and quiet teenager with little experience of the world beyond his native Glasgow. Through this story, the reader is immersed in the young would-be soldier’s training and those first tentative friendships formed, many of which would last a lifetime. It’s often claimed by those who served that joining the army is what made a man of them, and for many that’s true but what the author shows with equal emphasis is that it can just as easily lead to ruination; just as the young Jim Faulkner grows in confidence and into the man and soldier he wants to be, we also see him being drawn into the services drinking culture and hints at the problems that might bring with it in later years. There is also an excellent preface and first chapter that proceeds the start of our young character’s military career portraying a family background and life that might well have played a part in Jim Faulkner’s decision to join the British Army, a background that was indeed shared at least in parts by many of the young recruits of the day.

Written in the first person, the story has a very personal feel to it, enabling the reader to get to know Jim as a real flesh and blood person rather simply as a well-constructed character. The dialogue is entirely natural and the chronological way in which it’s portrayed and divided into twelve easily digestible chapters makes the story fluid and easy to read. There are many good things about being in the army as the author clearly shows but he doesn’t shy away from the negatives and hardships along the way. Another thing that impressed me was the author’s honesty in the events he portrays; he doesn’t exaggerate or sensationalise in pursuit of a more exciting or gripping story or try to give the impression that Jim is on course to be another Andy McCabe or other such well known military figure.

Although this is a fictional portrayal of Jim Faulkner’s early military training and experiences, the author has drawn heavily on both his own life and those of his immediate comrades of the time, making ‘A Life of Choice’ as authentic as any entirely factual biography. I was pleased to discover when reading this that it wasn’t just another ‘pull up a sandbag’ type account relying on the legendary squaddie humour and colourful language for it entertainment but actually a thoughtful and well-written account of those times; yes those elements are present but they are not exaggerated or over-emphasised, though when they are highlighted, it’s done to perfection…

“… The creases in his green denim trousers were sharper than the razor I’d used only the day before for the first time…”

“… Where I came from a steam iron was used to settle domestic disagreements…”

Anyone who has served as a regular in the army or even one of the other services will from the beginning see familiar elements of themselves and their own experiences and might well read this like a trip down memory lane, bringing back happy and sometimes not so happy times. For others, particularly those who may have had or have friends or family who served, this book provides an honest and, true to military life, humorous insight into army training and life and just a few of the many colourful characters. Beyond that though this is also a compelling coming of age story, of the journey from boy to man, accelerated by intense military training along with all the usual landmark experiences of a young man growing up fast – being away from home for the first time, the pain of first love and its loss, learning to drive (in a land rover as opposed to the usual little bubble type cars that most people learn to drive in), and trying to fit in with his peers and all the pitfalls that entails. The heart of this story commences from 1969 through to 1971 when the army then was a very different thing to what it is today, and again, Tom Benson portrays that here to perfection. By the end of this first instalment, Jim Faulkner has long since completed his basic training and is now a fully-fledged Signalman en-route to his first overseas posting to Germany. I look forward to reading about his further training and adventures …

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Life of Choice – Part Two 

Paths & Progression

timberwolfamazonAnother first-class effort blending fact and fiction, bringing to life Jim’s continuing story … Looking forward to pt3!

pt2This is a fine continuation from pt1 of this series. Unlike the shy and reserved Jim Faulkner of before, our young recruit is now much more typical of your average young squaddie – a likeable and promising soldier but also a hard drinking, smoking, self-assured, and after a few trips to sample the local off-camp nightlife, a more ‘worldly’ young man. We also see much more of Jim Faulkner’s struggle to balance the demands of a military career with those of his personal life and relationships.

After having a established a reputation for being fond of a drink (or ten) there is a poignant and moving episode early on where an older comrade, Mick, pulls Jim aside and uses himself as an example of the dangers of falling into the heavy drinking culture of army life, subtly warning him of the danger of missed opportunities and promotion, and not ending up the same way. Another touching and perhaps prophetic moment is Jim Faulkner’s encounter with an older woman whilst on leave, promising to mention and remember her in his memoirs should he ever decide to write them. 

In pt1 the author took the time to explain most of the military terminology, and so, much of that used here needs no further explaining. There is, of course, a lot more used in this second part (now that Jim is ‘doing the job for real’ even if he is still learning), which the author doesn’t explain, but given this series is about a man’s life and experiences in both his military and personal life rather than just a ‘who’s who’ and ‘what’s what’ of the army, it really doesn’t detract from the enjoyment and flow of events. 

Although another fine instalment, this chapter of Jim Faulkner’s life doesn’t (for me) quite live up to that of the first part (more a 4.8 or 9 than an easy 5*). This is no reflection of the writing or content, but possibly more to do with my own experience; much of the book here includes a lot of what I would call the nitty gritty of army life and Jim’s first overseas posting, much of it quite specific to his own regiment/trade, and I found myself skimming over some parts of it – for a civilian reader (or indeed a fellow signalman), I imagine this aspect would have held greater interest, so ironically, this may be an instance of a non-military reader enjoying this part of the series more than their ex-military conterparts (scaleys excepted of course lol). In stark contrast to this, Jim Faulkner sees for the first time some of the sharp-end of military service on the streets of Belfast, where pretty much everyone who toured there did more than their share of front-line soldiering and patrols – whatever your trade or regiment, everyone doubled as infantrymen too.

Overall, another first-class effort blending fact and fiction, bringing Jim’s story to life, and again, countless memories for some and providing a moving and realistic account of military life for others. It’s good to read a genuinely authentic ‘fictional’ military memoir, one that many a reader will see echoes of themselves in rather than some ridiculously unbelievable story better suited to tv sensationalism. By the end of this second part, we see the clear struggle between Jim’s determination to be the best soldier he possibly can, and his overfondness of alcohol and the more unsavoury aspects of army life, and we leave him at a point not knowing which side of the struggle will determine his future career … looking forward to pt3!

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Life of Choice – Part Three

On and Off the Rails

timberwolfamazonA real nostalgic treat for anyone who served back in the 70s, this series just gets better and better!

pt3Following his transfer to Londonderry, Jim Faulkner is proving himself an enthusiastic and extremely capable soldier, both in his trade and at the sharp of soldering. Though not lacking female attention, he’s still a bit of a walking disaster area when it comes to women, and despite the overall progress he’s making in his career, still manages the occasional screw-up just as most of us did. Screw-ups aside though, by now, Jim is not only an experienced signalman and soldier but is demonstrating clear leadership skills and promotion potential in all manner of ways, the latter being long overdue but for his continuing alcohol issues – a transfer to Berlin sees his progress continue, but in true Jim Faulkner style, he allows his drinking issues to once again bring his entire career into question. Thankfully, this latest setback is softened by good news in another area of his life. 

Once again, this latest chapter in Jim Faulkner’s life is another real nostalgic treat for anyone who served back in the 70s, and just as much so for those simply wanting to see how Jim’s life and military career progress following the rather sour note at which he left it at the end of pt2. It’s full of all the usual shenanigans and scrapes many a single young squaddie got into at the time, but beneath some of the more unsavoury episodes of Jim’s life and career, he’s showing himself to be a thoroughly decent man with a sense of fair play, loyalty, and consideration for others. As you would also expect, there’s a fair helping of squaddie humour and outrageous anecdotes, though no doubt, nostalgic for many readers … this series just gets better and better (despite an earlier reference to the best regiment in the British Army being ‘planks’ …lol!).

 

Life of Choice – Part Four

Onwards and Upward

timberwolfamazonMy favourite part of the series so far, our young recruit has become the man & soldier he was meant to be!

pt4Jim Faulkner has come a long way in his life and career since that first day as a shy and probably a tad scared young recruit. By now though, Jim has a good number of years’ service under his belt, and for the first time, things are going well for him both professionally and in his personal life. But it’s not been an easy journey – overcoming a near alcoholic booze dependency, a court-martial, and a spell in the guardroom, some would say the now not so young Jim Faulkner had done well to ride the many ups and downs of his life, many of which could easily have ended his military career before it had a chance to progress.

Berlin has proved to be a new start for Jim; older and a little wiser, maturity and a settled domestic life, we now get to see much more of the real man behind the squaddie stereotype bravado and mischief-making, and indeed the career potential that was so evident earlier in his career. Amid all the good things going on in Jim’s life, there’s still lots of little dramas and humour filled episodes, especially when bumping into old friends from past postings. I must admit, I’ve probably enjoyed this latest part the most; fitter, healthier, and more responsible, it’s clear, Jim Faulkner is thoroughly enjoying life as a soldier and family man, and the esteem in which he’s now held by those both above and below him in rank. Looking forward to reading pt5, the next, and sadly final part to this addictive story.

 

Life of Choice – Part Five

Back and Forward

timberwolfamazonImpossible to praise this series too highly, an epic of military memories & humour … gutted that it’s finally come to an end.

pt5Well, who would have thought it, Jim Faulkner’s career has come full circle as he seeks to pass on his skills and experience to new recruits, most less than half his age. Reminiscent of the past though, Jim isn’t afraid of making enemies of those of higher rank, and isn’t about to compromise his standards in any new role. 

Despite Jim’s added maturity, this part is no less filled with laugh out loud moments, like when Jim and a mate are practising their drill instruction technique on some trees (yes, you read that right – trees), imagining them to be young untrained recruits, or when he makes one of his open day first-aid demonstrations a little ‘too’ realistic for the unprepared. There are also glimpses into some of the imaginative ways some NCOs used to deal with issues such as bullying and discipline, where our now ‘training instructor, Sgt Faulkner’ uses his discretion and judgment of character to ‘delegate’ the solving of it in one instance.

Another thing that impressed me in this final part was the sombre reminder of the more serious side of soldering. In earlier parts, Jim served tours in Northern Ireland during the ‘Troubles,’ as nasty and dangerous a war as any other despite it not being officially acknowledged as such. We see too his reaction to further IRA atrocities in Germany and the UK during the 80s. Towards the end of this final part, Jim’s has to prepare for his overseas posting as part of the British contingent during the first Gulf War, but it’s not just the detail of the military side of the preparation that strikes home, but heart-rending tasks such as trying to reassure a little boy that he mustn’t worry about his dad going to war, urging him to be brave and look after his mum. And let’s not forget those last letters home should the worst happen, the ones you hope and pray will never be delivered – for some of those soldiers sent to the Gulf, those letters were to be delivered. As we see from Jim Faulkner’s career, life as a squaddie is filled with humour, military training, sometimes boredom, new challenges, and a host of other things, but underlying it all, a soldier may be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice, just as so many have and will again in the future. Thankfully, Jim Faulkner did survive, enjoying 23 years service, a somewhat longer career than his own father’s prediction it wouldn’t last beyond his basic training.

I’m guessing the author will never reveal the exact ratio of fact to fiction here, but I’d say, though there’s clearly an element of fiction to make for a more readable and chronological series, it’s definitely weighted in favour of the former. For anyone who’s ever served, every part of this series will bring back memories, some with a smile and others with a shudder of when they were in the s*** or on the wrong end of a bollocking. But this isn’t just a trip down memory lane for ex-squaddies – parents, partners, and children of servicemen too will enjoy the many insights into military life, perhaps understanding their mum or dad, husband, wife, son or daughter just a little better. And lastly, anyone who enjoys rooting for the underdog, laughing at no small helping of mischief-making and devilment, or immersing themselves in a life full of ups and downs and lived to the full will not be disappointed with the story of Jim Faulkner. 

 

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Click Here for Tom Benson’s many other novels, short story anthologies, and poetry collections on his Amazon Author page.

 

Click pic below for Tom Benson’ IASD profile page and additional info:

TBiasd

The ‘Spectre’

I’ve partly been inspired to write this story while on a trip to Glen Coe in the West Highlands of Scotland, and today in particular where many years ago I was fortunate enough to witness a rare and beautiful atmospheric phenomenon atop the summit of Leum Uilliem, a place that holds a special place in my heart as the following story and memoire will make clear.

The other part of today’s inspiration stems from one of the AtoZchallenge posts from yesterday which stressed the importance of connecting with and really feeling what you’re writing, and my memories and feelings for this particular place I’m sure will bear witness to that.

Today was the first time I’ve returned to that particular spot in twenty years…

Those experienced in outdoor pursuits or simply possessing a love of the mountains and countryside will no doubt immediately recognise the phenomenon it for what it is from the photographs, but otherwise, the phenomenon becomes clearer towards the end of the story…

 

Image          Image       Image

 

The ‘Spectre’

It had been three years since his mum died; Liam was seven now and of an age when simply telling him his mum was in heaven really didn’t cut it anymore. It wasn’t just curiosity though that was spurring his questions, but fear – afraid that he was forgetting her just a little bit more with each passing day, and more so the fear that she might be forgetting him.

I tried explaining that memories weren’t like that, that you didn’t remember loved ones in the same way you remember the route to school or what you saw in a film, that memories were something much more special, that you felt them in your heart and at special times when you were feeling either sad or very happy. I could see in his eyes he was puzzling over what I was saying but not really understanding enough to allay the sadness I knew he was feeling. At that moment I would rather have been facing my most frightening and dangerous enemy than those questions to which I had no answers for, at least not for now…

It was the school holidays, a couple of weeks before the start of the Scottish deer stalking season, and I’d rented a small cottage for the two of us just a few miles from Corrour Station on the West Highland line, and ideal for taking Liam on his first ever proper climb up Leum Uilliem in the Glen Coe region of Scotland and home to the majestic Ben Nevis, highest mountain in the UK.

Needless to say that was the one Liam said we should tackle but the more interesting and difficult routes would have been too much for him, and as for the tourist path, it would have been chocked with ill-equipped day trippers trundling up in their flimsy trainers and even on occasion, flip-flops, hardly the example I wanted for Liam on his first climb; besides which, it’s really quite a boring trek going that way.

I had it in mind that taking him to some of the places me and his mum had spent so many happy times walking and climbing together might make him feel closer to her and generally cheer him up; actually telling him that he was almost certainly conceived in one of those places was probably a little more than even his inquiring young mind was quite ready for so perhaps another time for that little revelation. Beyond that I really didn’t know what else I could do.

We began our ascent of Leum Uilliem, one of the easier Corbetts at a shade under 3000ft, from Corrour Station, itself positioned at a height of 1,340ft, thus making the ascent a not too difficult one, though still quite a challenge for a seven year old given some of the terrain.

At the start, a corner of the Moor of Rannoch, we began our journey westwards across the moorland towards the northern ridge of the hill, crossing the Allt Coir’ a’ Bhric Beag along the deer stalking-path as we approached the crest of the ridge and then upwards to the south west, over Tom an Eoin while I explained about such paths and the deer stalking season of the following month. He didn’t seem to approve of deer stalking but I was pleased to note that his initial disappointment at not being able to tell all his mates when he returned to school had climbed the ‘Ben’ had all but disappeared.

His disapproval of deer stalking was so much like his mum’s, I thought at the time, as she too hated anything like that no matter how many time you explained its necessity; perhaps Liam would understand better…

“I think mum was right,” Liam proudly declared, “it’s wrong killing the deer.”

Obviously not! Well that told me in no uncertain terms, I couldn’t help thinking. I needn’t have worried about his dwelling on it though as soon enough, he was firing more and different questions about our trek at every juncture:

“What’s… Alt.. Coy.. a.. brick?” He asked, trying to interpret the pronunciation while looking at the map I had given him to hold.

“Well, let’s take a look at the book shall we?” I replied, taking out a small local guidebook from my rucksack.

“Allt means stream, and Bhric Beag means speckled and small, and Coir’.. It’s not here but It means corrie, and altogether it roughly means stream of the speckled corrie.. You’ll soon get used to seeing words and names like these as you do more map reading”

“And what about that one… Tom an E..oin?”

“Ahh, that’s an easy one,” I said, “it means knoll of the bird.. or eagle maybe.”

“And what’s… Lee.. Um… Oo.. Illiem.. ?” I couldn’t help but chuckle at his struggle with the spelling, and Liam chuckled too…

“It means William’s Leap.” Liam looked at me, not even trying to hide his puzzled frown…

“And before you ask, no one really knows who William was, or why he leapt, it’s something that’s long since been forgotten.”

“Okay.” Was his short and accepting reply; perhaps I had been was wrong, and he really wasn’t bothered who William was or why he might have leapt. And on that note we continued our trek, slowly gaining height as we turned eastwards across the saddle of and up the broad ridge towards the spacious summit of Leum Uilliem, or ‘William’s Leap’ as I had previously and as it seemed, unnecessarily explained.

We had been at it for the best part of nearly three hours by now and the summit was in sight. It had been quite a hard slog what with the rain the previous day making much of the ground hard going, and I could tell the effort was beginning to tell a bit, but not once did he complain or appear to lose interest. Right at that moment I couldn’t have been prouder of my little trooper, and instead of denting his own pride in asking him if he needed to rest I discreetly slowed the pace right down before declaring I needed a quick rest before our final push to the summit…

“Okay dad, if you like…” he happily agreed.

“So son, how have you enjoyed our day so far?”

“It’s been great dad, and the map reading, that’s been fun too, but I still don’t get the compass and … bearings thingy yet.”

“Don’t you worry about that, we’ll do more of that another time.”

“Was mum good at… Maps and things?” He asked, quite out of the blue.

“Ermm, yes, sort of, but… Between you and me I think she was probably a lot better than she let on, but she preferred enjoying the scenery than doing the hard work and thinking bit.” Liam laughed out loud at that before munching into a sandwich.

“Shall we kick off again then matey?” I asked, hoisting my rucksack back on.

“Yep, let’s go!” He replied eagerly, lifting himself up to join me.

The extensive views from the top were simply stunning, embracing moors, lochs and innumerable summits…

“You’re right dad, it’s great up here,” Liam declared, “I reckon mum must have really loved it.”

His back and face slightly turned away from me as he stared across the landscape, some several feet away from me. I recognised that tone of voice, it was the one he had when he sometime got upset when thinking about his mum. I saw his hand raise up to wipe his face, no doubt rubbing away the tears he didn’t want me to see. Perhaps it was just as well he was turned away from me otherwise he might have seen me doing much the same thing a moment later.

“I know son…” I said, placing a hand on his shoulder.

“I won’t forget her, I promise dad.”

“Of course you won’t, just as she won’t forget you either.. She’s out there.. Somewhere, watching us… And smiling no doubt at how muddy and dirty we are.”

Liam turned his head to look up at me: “You really think so?”

“You betcha’ son.” I said with all the conviction and certainty I could muster, and for that brief moment I believed it too.

And then I saw it, in the distance, pointing to draw Liam’s attention to it too…

“What’s that dad?” Liam asked excitedly, adding, “it looks like a rainbow, but not like the ones I’ve seen.”

I was about to explain but something stopped me as the germ of an idea began to take shape…

“Try moving to the side a bit and look it straight on.” I urged. He moved as I suggested and stared open mouthed in amazement…

“It’s… It’s like… An angel standing in the middle dad…”

“Not just an angel son, I told you mum was looking out as us from somewhere..”

“You mean…?”

“Maybe… Why not give her a wave, see if she doesn’t see and wave back?”

I stepped a few paces back and to the side as Liam gingerly raised an arm before waving at the figure in the circular rainbow, silently praying that the conditions were right for what I was hoping…

“Dad!” Liam shouted, “dad, dad, look… She waving back, look dad, she’s waving back at me…”

I had never gone much on religion and God, and even less so with the things and I’d seen and done in my past career, but I mouthed a silent ‘thank you’. By now of course, Liam was waving like a madman at the angelic figure, utterly mesmerised by its apparent responses, utterly convinced his mum was joining in the fun.

An elderly couple were looking on from a short distance away, they too probably there either to just enjoy the moment or perhaps reliving memories of their own.

I strolled towards them and briefly explained about Liam and his mum, and how he believed he was waving back at her in the rainbow.

They of course knew the truth, that it was just an optical illusion brought about by a unique set of weather conditions, of the sun shining from behind us as we stared down from the ridge into the mist below while the light projected shadows through the mist, and Liam’s movements seemingly reflected in that of the ghostly figure…

The old woman smiled and started to cry, just a little, but with a beaming smile across her face. Her husband put his arm around her, and gave her a gentle hug and thanked me for sharing the moment with them.

And in that moment we shared an unspoken understanding and so there was no need for them to promise not to shatter the illusion once the phenomenon passed…

I turned back towards where Liam was still waving and dancing at the shadowy figure and made my way over. By now the rainbow was starting to dissipate, and the angelic shadow was losing its form…

“Bye mum,” I heard Liam softly say… “Love you…”

I put my hand on his shoulder once again…

“Where did you go dad? Why didn’t you stay and wave with me?”

“It’s okay son, it was you she wanted to see and tell how much she loved and remembered. That was your special moment. It’s why I brought you here, I had a feeling mum would be somewhere about to say hello.”

I had no idea of course that we would see a ‘Brocken Spectre’ that day; I’d seen such phenomena several times on Mt. Snowden, and a few more times in Germany too, but never one quite so spectacular in this part of the world.

On those previous occasions I had often wondered what our ancestors might have thought, that maybe some peasant farmer on the hills of Macedonia might be thinking he’s staring down or across at the inhabitants of Mt Olympus, or even some Gaelic tribesman closer to home, truly believing himself to be staring into the very soul of some pagan god, but right now nothing could have been further from my mind, all I could see was my happy little boy who really believed me when I told him his mum was in heaven and still loved and remembered him.

I wouldn’t normally of lied to Liam, but seeing his face, seeing all his fears and tears disappear I thought I might reasonably be forgiven, just this once…

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