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Starter For Ten by David Nicholls
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Starter For Ten (2003)

by David Nicholls

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And your starter for ten is: who wrote popular 2009 novel 'One Day'?

Did you know the answer? It was, of course, author and screenwriter David Nicholls, who is best-known for his third novel ‘One Day’, which I do own a copy of but haven’t yet got round to reading; ‘Starter for Ten’ is his first book and was recently available for free on iBooks.

What’s it about?

‘Starter for Ten’ is a romantic comedy in which the protagonist’s seduction technique consists consists of trying to show off his general knowledge, so you know there'll be more comedy than romance.

It’s 1985 and Brian Jackson is starting out at university. His plan is to star in ‘University Challenge’ in a kind of homage to his dead father…and as a way to ‘get’ girls. Joining the team, he is instantly distracted by wannabe actress Alice Harbinson, whose lack of interest in Brian is only obvious to other people. Can he win The Challenge? And will be get The Girl?

What’s it like?

Mildly humorous; this is the kind of material that will garner a wry smile rather than a loud chuckle. Very early on, when writing about his 16 year old self’s reaction to his O level results, Brian tells us that it was “a long, long time ago. I’m eighteen now”. And that’s the standard set for the book. Soon after he describes the kind of lifestyle he hopes to magically slot into by sheer virtue of becoming a student and concludes: “That’s what I imagine it’s going to be like anyway. The University Experience. I like the word experience. It makes it sound like a ride at Alton Towers.” O-kaaay. Intelligent at trivia but baffled by emotions, it’s clear that Brian has a lot to learn: the difference between knowledge and wisdom; the many ways a girl might subtly (and not so subtly) reject you; and what being a socialist might really mean.

I enjoyed the humour but ultimately found this a little disappointing. It just seemed too predictable. There are two love interests: the flighty and flirty, upper middle class, aspiring actress Alice and the scathing socialist right-on Rebecca. The mystery is what either of them see in Brian, who is mostly pretentious, oblivious, twit-ish and awkward. Although Brian isn’t unlikeable, he isn’t very likeable either. He’s a poor friend to his pals back home, a largely absent son and just a bit spineless really. To look at him more kindly, he’s just a regular Joe trying to find his place in the world and work out what his values really are. In an interesting interview with The Guardian Nicholls draws several parallels betweeen himself and Brian, arguing that “Unless you’re writing in the serial killer genre, it’s a safe bet that first novels will have a strong autobiographical element”.

For me the story hit a big snag in chapter 28 when Brian and his friend Spencer seem to arrive at the same party twice. They arrive, then the narrative switches back to earlier that day – fine – but then we’re back to the moment they arrive and the characters have different thoughts and different things are happening. I did wonder if I’d missed something somewhere but a quick reread of the relevant chapter has let me just as confused. If this was a self-published work I’d think it was an editing error.

More problematically, unlike most novels and therefore my expectations, Brian’s character doesn’t seem to develop much and the ending felt like more of the same. The conclusion to his romantic interests is both predictable and unconvincing and as this is a key part of the storyline in the last few pages I found the ending vaguely unsatisfactory too.

Final thoughts

With apologies to anyone who dislikes this kind of categorisation, I do feel this is a bit of a guys book. There’s a lot of information about the bands Brian and his friends like, which is clearly meant to indicate something about them (as well as set the 80s scene) but it’s all a bit meaningless to me. Perhaps I would have enjoyed this more if I were more musically literate. I found this sufficiently entertaining to read on my phone over a series of nights spent settling my daughter to sleep, but when I had other opportunities to read I found myself reading something else.

Ultimately this is a lightweight debut which might particularly appeal to men who were in their late teens in the 80s. I’m still hopeful that ‘One Day’ will appeal to me more than this did but won’t be rushing to read it anytime soon.
  brokenangelkisses | Feb 27, 2015 |
Originally Published On My Review Blog http://www.thebookavid.blogspot.com

In David Nicholls' "Starter For Ten" we meet Brian, a first-class pretentious dude that is hopelessly friendzoned and doesn't quite get the hint.

After watching the movie version of "One Day", I got quite interested in David Nicholls and thought that I should try reading one of his novels. When my local bookstore had a ridiculously cheap offer for this one, I couldn't pass. Maybe I should have.

What plays the biggest part in me disliking this one - yes, I'm starting my review off by just telling it like it is - is that he tries way too hard to make the characters relatable. Since the main character Brian just finished high school. we are obviously dealing with a New Adult story. but honestly. the characters are extremely off. You can tell immediately that this is a grown man writing, trying to sound hip and cool and totally missing the essence of what it is like to be eighteen. Yes, you might argue that the novel is set in the 1980s, but if I met a guy like Brian who just won't stop bragging about how smart and sophisticated he is while just thinking he's having a normal conversation - uhm. You get the picture.

Nicholls even tries to use this as a stylistic device. Brian is an annoying person to befriend and therefore nobody wants to hang out with him. He is basically a slightly older version of Dash from "Dash and Lily's Book of Dares". Except Brian is also not very good-looking, which Nicholls makes sure to emphasize at least fifteen times throughout the novel.
While I do encourage to have ugly, unpopular characters instead of having everyone look like the archetypical greek god models, this is taking it too far. It's not relatable. It's not funny. You're trying to hard. Maybe, given the fact that I am not a teenage boy, I just don't relate to this, but this isn't the kind of novel an author wants to create, right? Everyone should be able to enjoy this, your target audience shouldn't be only boys like Brian.

Another problem with the characters is that they are only characterized by how they feel about Brian. there's hardly anyone who can stand him unless they want something from him. While the protagonist is explored thoroughly, everyone else remains pretty flat. Especially love interest Alice, who is just interesting because she's hot. (Characters 1/5)

Usually I would have continued and forced myself to finsish this, had there been an interesting plot. The novel revolves around five university students applying to a quiz show called University Challenge. Except this isn't even the focus. There are random bits of more or less unconnected events that are supposed to illustrate what a loser Brian is (e.g. girls rejecting/arguing/insulting him 24/7), and then after another three chapters something relevant to the plot happens. As a reader, I got bored pretty easily, because the plot is just so inconsistent. And hell, I could have not cared less about that annoying game show. There's nothing keeping me to want to continue reading!

After about 150 pages I was done, completely and utterly through with this. Neither could I stand another second of Brian talking, nor of Nicholls trying to speak the "lingo". And actually, this whole business of Alice rejectign him times and times over and him not understanding it - just - as a woman about her age I know this too well. Dudes who won't back off no matter what you do.

No, I don't want to read a novel about it.
No, I don't want to sympathize with poor Brian who does everything for her but still doesn't get laid. Women don't owe you shit.
Not even when they're hot.

Overall: Do I recommend?

No. Absolutely not. I think it's a pretty misogynistic read. I have enough of that in daily life already, thanks but no.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ ( )
  bookavid | Nov 26, 2014 |
A good read, some really cringy moments that every tweeny (teenager going on twenty's) can relate too. I kept my judgment on the female lead until near the end thinking that maybe she might pull though, but I was happy with the ending. No spoilers here... but interesing! ( )
  itsmezoe | Sep 16, 2013 |
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.

Brian Jackson is starting his first year at the University of Bristol and is trying to cope with the usual young-adult pressures: living away from home for the first time, reinventing himself to fit in with new friends and acquaintances while trying to keep up with the old friends, and figuring out just who he is in the first place. One thing he does consider himself is clever, having been a longtime fan of the quiz show University Challenge, so when he sees a poster advertising tryouts for the university quiz team, he knows he's found his niche.

This was an utterly hilarious book. Brian is a loveable character, which is a good thing since the entire novel is first person present and we get up close and personal with his inner thoughts. His struggles to fit in and impress and live up to his own self-image are very easy to relate to. I was constantly writing down quotes and observations, like this one:

"I'm starting to suspect this notion that there's a wise, smart, funny, kind, brave Real Me running around somewhere out there is a bit of a fallacy. Like the Yeti; if no one ever actually sees him properly, why should anyone believe that he actually exists?"

The university quiz aspect of the story was also a big draw for me, having experienced that world myself. Nicholls describes very well the thrill of competition, the excitement of knowing an obscure fact, and the interesting personalities one encounters on the circuit:

"it didn't matter that the contestants were clearly social misfits, or a little grubby or spotty, or aging virgins, or in some cases just frankly strange"--knowledge was the prime consideration on the show.

Each chapter also begins with a thematically appropriate University Challenge-style question (the titular "Starter for Ten", each question being worth ten points in the game), allowing the reader to get a taste of the show…and perhaps develop a hankering for pub quizzes and Trivial Pursuit.

The climax of the story is well done as well, but very painful to read because we've come to know and love Brian over the course of the story and it's difficult to fathom why he does what he does. Specifically, he receives a heart-stopping opportunity to look at a couple of the questions that the quiz team will face on TV, and gives the game away by buzzing in way too early. (This scene was played to great effect in the movie adaptation -- I had to flee the room in embarrassment until the coast was clear.)

This book will appeal to those who have ever played in high school or university trivia/quiz organizations (and even those who play along with Jeopardy!), arts students, the "social misfits" of the world, and those who don't usually read typical "romantic comedy" novels but who do like to see an unlikely hero get the girl on occasion.

Further reading: Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs, by Ken Jennings, the 75-game Jeopardy! contestant.

Further watching: the movie adaptation of Starter for Ten, starring James McAvoy as Brian Jackson. The movie will particularly appeal to those who remember the 1980s, since it's set in 1985/6 and has a soundtrack and costumes that will trigger plenty of nostalgia. ( )
  rabbitprincess | Apr 13, 2013 |
Interesting that a review for Nicholls' newest book made me want to read this one.
  pam.enser | Apr 1, 2013 |
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Epigraph
She knew this type very well - the vague aspirations, the mental disorder, the familiarity with the outside of books ... E.M. Forster, Howards End
Dedication
To Ann and Alan Nicholls. And Hannah, of course.
First words
All young people worry about things, it's a natural and inevitable part of growing up, and at the age of sixteen my greatest anxiety in life was that I'd never again achieve anything as good, or pure, or noble, or true, as my O-level results.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0340734876, Paperback)

It's 1985 and Brian Jackson has arrived at university with a burning ambition - to make it onto TV's foremost general knowledge quiz. But no sooner has he embarked on 'The Challenge' than he finds himself falling hopelessly in love with his teammate, the beautiful and charismatic would-be actress, Alice Harbinson. When Alice fails to fall for his slightly over-eager charms, Brian comes up with a foolproof plan to capture her heart once and for all. He's going to win the game, at any cost, because - after all - everyone knows that what a woman really wants from a man is a comprehensive grasp of general knowledge...Starter for Ten is a comedy about love, class, growing-up and the all-important difference between knowledge and wisdom. Are you up to the challenge of the funniest novel in years?

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:20:31 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

The year is 1985 and Brian has just started his first term at university, armed with the obligatory CND membership and a complete set of Kate Bush albums. But he also has a dark secret - a burning ambition to appear on University Challenge and now, finally, it seems the dream is about to become reality.… (more)

» see all 4 descriptions

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