Book Review – Life of Choice: Parts 1 – 5
Posted by echoesofthepen
A 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.
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 always, 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
Blog – www.tombensoncreative.com
A Life of Choice – Part One
Innocence and Inebriation
From 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 …
Life of Choice – Part Two
Paths & Progression
This 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!
Life of Choice – Part Three
On and Off the Rails
Following 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
Jim 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
Well, 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.
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:
About echoesofthepenMiddle-aged man, aspiring writer and author, one grown-up son and young grandson, now retired from the rail industry, actively working to develop a writing career.
Posted on June 15, 2018, in Book Reviews and tagged Berlin, biography, British Army, Catterick, Fact based fiction, fiction, Germany, Memoire, memoirs, Military, Northern Ireland, Operation Banner, Royal Corps of Signals, soldiers, squaddie. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.