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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:

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Screaming In Silence: Trauma Poetry and Short Story – Poetry Review

McNally2Tony McNally served in the British army as a Royal Artillery Gunner. At 19 years old he was sent to fight in the Falklands War as a Rapier missile operator where he shot down two enemy jet aircraft. After serving in Northern Ireland he left the forces and was diagnosed with PTSD (Post traumatic Stress Disorder) and told to go away and write down his thoughts and feelings.

This lead to him writing his No1 best selling book Watching MenMcNally4.jpg Burn. He now lives in the tranquil English Lake district with his wife Linda and their two Labrador dogs, where he continues to write, especially poetry, which he finds very therapeutic and helpful with his PTSD. His other interests are Rugby League and enjoying his family. He has now published his page turning new book of Trauma poetry and a short story about World War One titled Screaming In Silence as reviewed below, and is working on his first eagerly anticipated military thriller fiction novel about terrorism and the Special Forces.

For further links to the author’s writting see:

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Author website: www.tonymcnally.co.uk/

Tumbler: mack4619.tumblr.com/

Blog: rogue-gunner.blogspot.co.uk/

Facebook: www.facebook.com/mack4619

Twitter: @Roguegunner 

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 Amazon Blurb:

Tony McNally is a Falklands War veteran and the best selling author of Watching Men Burn. A tireless campaigner for better understanding and treatment of servicemen and women suffering from mental health problems like PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)

After leaving the forces he was diagnosed with PTSD by a civilian doctor and was at first unable to talk about his War time experiences, he was told to go home and try and write down his thoughts and feelings. He soon realized that writing was therapeutic and began to write poetry and short stories, Screaming in Silence is his first book of poetry and a short story about the First World War. Written from the heart this is a powerful collection of works that can only be written by someone that has experienced the brutality of War and mans inhumanity, which is apparent with his colorful and brutal and then at times beautiful, poignant and gentle words. He covers a wide range of subject matter, Politics, murder, homelessness, divorce, Religion and obviously War, McNally hits the readers with the ferocity of an exploding grenade then the gentleness of a poppy petal blowing gracefully in the summer breeze.

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Screaming In Silence: Trauma Poetry and Short Story

By Tony McNally

(Available from Amazon in eBook & Print formats)

.timberwolfamazonAs accurate an insight into the mental trauma of front-line service you can get short of actually suffering it yourself…, 12 Jun. 2016 – By Rudders

McNally3There are many books and websites that describe and address PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, from a clinical or diagnosis perspective but none that bring home the true reality and potentially devastating long-term effects more effectively than the words and thoughts here of someone with personal experience of it. Screaming In Silence is a collection of poetry high-lighting the grim reality and after-effects of being on the frontline of modern warfare. With over a hundred poems here the author covers every aspect of his personal experiences in both ‘The Troubles’ of Northern Ireland and the much shorter but equally violent and horrific conflict of the Falklands War. There is also a very personal introduction outlining the author’s childhood, early training experiences as a sixteen year old ‘boy soldier’ recruit in the British army, and his subsequent marriage break-ups and suicide attempts, all of which hints at and sets the tone for the poignant poetry to follow. In this introduction Tony McNally also emphasises, almost apologetically, that he is not a professional writer, that his reasons for writing this collection was to help him and others deal with their war-related PTSD. There are a few grammar and typo issues in the introduction but beyond that the quality of writing in the poetry is nothing short of superb.

The poems here are relatively short but every word is carefully chosen to convey the author’s feelings and thoughts, snapshots as it were of his experiences. Tony McNally doesn’t choose his words to contrive a consistent succession of rhymes simply to entertain or produce what we expect from more traditional poetry, but those which most aptly portray his feelings and what he’s trying to say. In some of his poems there is a prose style to relate a story such as in ‘Sticks and Stones’ where he tells of being a six-year-old boy with a pretend gun to a cadet with a rifle, and then from firing a Howitzer at sixteen to shooting down an enemy plane with a missile at nineteen, to finally looking back on being a little boy again. Some also reflect on his and others’ post army careers, alluding in once instance to the contrast between the pride of being a British soldier only to find oneself homeless or in a prison cell for shooting the enemy, an indirect reference to the highly publicised and controversial case of Marine ‘A’ now serving a prison sentence for a supposed war crime. In others he pays poignant and humbling tribute to the fallen of such conflicts. In parts there is understandable regret and bitterness about his experiences, condemning both governments, politicians, and religion for the needless loss of life, as well as the lack of care and treatment of those who return home from such conflicts, often ill-equipped to cope with the trauma they’ve suffered or the transition to civilian life. In contrast to the poems  the author concludes his book with a moving and tragic short story about a young man  serving at the front during the First World War.

If I were to compare Tony McNally to any of the more historically well-known poets it would have to be Wilfred Owen rather than the more romanticised works of Robert Brooke, perhaps not in style or technique but certainly for impact; and of the more current war poets, some of the poems compare with the more prose style of Tom Benson’s equally emotive collection Military Matters.

For those who have served, particularly in the same theatres of war as the author this collection will no doubt be a difficult read, likely bringing back painful memories of their own experiences. Despite this warning I have no hesitation in recommending it; in his writing the author has confronted and come to terms with many of the demons that form an integral part of his own PTSD, and if his words help others do the same I can only applaud the author on producing such a thoughtful, powerful, and well-written collection here.

A Humbling of Heroes – Book Review

 

blogpic3.jpgOne of my rare non-fiction reviews, a short book by Paul Rees I was alerted to via one of the UK Military/Veteran Fb groups, chronicling not only some of the incredible acts of bravery and self-sacrifice by soldiers and members of Royal Ulster Constabulary during the the ‘troubles’ of Northern Ireland but also everyday accounts of those who simply did their job to the high and professional standards expected of them and whom the author was privilged enough to know at the time. Although not a member of the IASD stable of Indie Authors,  Paul Rees is an author I shall certainly be reading more of.

Paul Ree lives in North Wales with his son, Daniel, and have a house on a farm and love the countryside. He served 7 years in the British Army, five of those years spent in Northern Ireland, and so is well qualified to write the following book.

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Further links to Paul Rees’ writing can be found at:

Paul Rees on Twitter:

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Paul Rees – Author website:

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A Humbling of Heroes -Amazon Description:

A ‘Humbling’ of Heroes is my way of expressing gratitude to people who, in my humble opinion, played a significant part in bringing ‘Peace’ to Northern Ireland.#ukveterans-one voice.

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A Humbling of Heroes 

By Paul Rees

(Available in both print & eBook formats from Amazon)

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timberwolfamazon – One man’s sombre and yet surprisingly uplifting perspective of ‘The Troubles.’

A relatively short non-fiction book of some sixty four pages but one that packs considerably more content into it than the page count would suggest. The book is divided into twelve short chapters, some focussing on individual acts of exceptional bravery and the events surrounding them along with the author’s own commentary while others are more personal accounts of the exceptional men and women he came into contact with. Amid the tragedy and senseless killings of the times, the tone of the book often switches between the sombre reality of the times with that of the legendary humour and banter of the army. The last two chapters, though more accurately described as post scripts take an interesting and political change of direction from the preceding ones, one high-lighting the formation of the ‘UK Veterans-One Voice’ Fb group by Nigel Kelsall, a friend of the author, originally set up in support of veteran of the Parachute Regiment being investigated for alleged involvement in the Bloody Sunday incident of 1972 but now instrumental in organising and promoting the highly publicised veteran marches and protests against such investigations and politically motivated prosecutions of vetersans and serving personnel alike. The final chapter is a personal note from the author briefly reflecting on his times in Northern Ireland and its subsequent history and is thoughts on some of the issues and controversy of soldier prosecutions.

Normally I would expect to read such a book easily in the one sitting but not so this time; some of the content is indeed ‘humbling’ as the title would suggest, but more so for those privileged enough to read it, many of whom wouldn’t be around to do so but the courage and self-sacrifice of the brave men and women whose individual stories are told here (and thousands more like them both at the time and since).

The style of writing is clear and succinct, in some chapters alternating between a 3rd person factual overview, and the author’s own personal commentary on the people and events portrayed, and in others an entirely personal account, not of individual well documented acts of bravery (of which there were many on a daily basis, most of which go unheralded but for books such as this) but simply of fellow soldiers and personnel it was the author’s privilege to know. I also liked that the author included photographs of the people and places he writes about, bringing home the reality of the subject matter, that these were real people, real places, and real events that existed and were taking place almost on the doorstep of the mainland UK. With the exception of the final two chapters, for the most part the author steers clear of the political background of the times and events portrayed, concentrating instead on the individuals, their personal bravery and professionalism, and snapshots almost of the times, but not unsurprisingly given his background, the author’s underlying perspective is quite rightly and unashamedly that of the British soldier.

Given the anecdotal style i.e. chronicling individual stories in their own chapters it’s impossible in some parts not to make comparisons with the likes of Ken Wharton’s equally humbling and well researched accounts of the time. For those who served, particularly during ‘The Troubles’of Northern Ireland, much of the subject matter will already be familiar and no doubt bring back painful memories. In contrast though they will also recognise the unique squaddie humour and banter and equally no doubt see echoes of their own experiences. For others this book gives both a factual and personal insight into those dreadful times much like the ‘letters home’ of veterans of the first and second world wars that can be viewed in numerous military museums and archives as well as some light hearted glimpses of the less serious side of life that was such an essential part of coping with serving a tour of Northern Ireland in the 70s and 80s.

There have been many books written by ex-servicemen (and a few women) that either focus on or refer to ‘The Troubles,’- some that are quite excellent, others not so bad, and a few that are so far off the mark that I genuinely question the said authors’ right and experience to write such books. I’m pleased to say that  ‘A humbling of Heroes’ despite its brevity sits well among the very best of such books, and I would say Paul Rees is well placed and qualified to embark on longer and more ambitious projects in whatever he decides to write in the future.

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Books by Paul Rees Click on titles for Amazon links:

When We’ve Said Goodbye

UK Veterans One Voice

A Humbling of Heroes

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