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Starter for Ten by David Nicholls

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 |
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 |
My expectations were not particularly high, nor was I thrilled to be reading this. Why? Well, I acquired a copy of One Day from a used bookstore and read it a while back, because I was really excited for. Unfortunately, I largely hated it. To find out why, read my review here. Starter for Ten has a lot of the same issues, but I did enjoy it a bit more, finding the characters to be a smidgen less obnoxious and the desperation a bit less unforgivable in a younger main character.

Oddly enough, what Starter for Ten reminds me most of is some of John Green's books, namely Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns. What these books share is a young male lead, though Brian in Nicholls' book is in college rather than high school, who is obsessed with a mysterious, experienced, unreachable girl. For this reason, these are my least favorite Green novels, though I still quite like them. I just can't bond quite as much with the books when I loathe the 'heroine' so much, and when the MC, otherwise intelligent and awesome, will not just get over this girl who obviously does not want him, but wants to string him along to increase her self-worth, which is low despite being the most gorgeous creature ever to enter that institution of learning. Ugh.

Of course, Green's books are saved by the other characters. They're pretty much all seriously entertaining and funny, people I wouldn't mind meeting. Unfortunately, this is not the case with Starter for Ten. Brian is SUCH A PATHETIC PRAT. Phew. Had to get that out. Seriously, though. He's a really smart guy, as shown by all of the trivia, but he has pretty much no social skills and no common sense. He gets terrible grades at University, because he spends pretty much all of his time mooning over Alice, THE girl, and writing her what is assuredly the worst poetry ever composed. Thank goodness Nicholls spared us that!

Alice is apparently the prettiest girl in school, sexually experienced, and desired by pretty much every male on campus. Brian is skinny, may have the worst acne ever, and seriously questionable style. I don't know what the 'grandpa shirts' he's constantly going on about are, but I seriously doubt clothing of that name is going to help bring the ladies to the yard. This discrepancy in their social status and skills made most of the book seem unbelievable to me. I just could not buy that Alice would voluntarily spend time with Brian.

Sure, she might be nice enough to keep him interested if they happened to show up to the same party or at trivia practice. In what world, though, does this girl invite that guy to her house over the holiday? Why would she keep hanging out with him after he said something super awkward to her mother? There's just no way that Alice and Brian would be as close as they are in the book. It's not just their attractiveness; she really doesn't seem to like him much, which I can certainly understand. And, whatever he may say, Brian really only likes her for her beauty, as all he really ever commends her for is being gorgeous.

All the time, of course, the one character I actually liked, Rebecca, a snarky Scot, is pining after Brian for some reason. With an awesome girl right there, he just continues to go after the girl he so obviously is not going to get in the end. It's great that unlike in One Day it's a guy desperate for a girl's love, but that reversal is undone by the fact that, awful though he is, a woman is waiting for him even more patiently. Sigh.

Please note, though, that there are good things about this book as well. For one thing, Nicholls is an incredibly talented writer. If he wrote characters I found less entirely obnoxious, I would LOVE his books. I read so much for character. Seriously, check out the quote. I love that, and it really does encapsulate the feelings of going off to college. If you're in it more for the writing, DEFINITELY read Nicholls. He's also delightfully British, which isn't so much a talent, but I enjoy it immensely.

If you're interested in this book, please do not let me scare you off unless you have similar taste in books, because way more people love Nicholls' books than dislike them. In this case, I am definitely in a minority. ( )
  A_Reader_of_Fictions | Apr 1, 2013 |
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She knew this type very well - the vague aspirations, the mental disorder, the familiarity with the outside of books ... E.M. Forster, Howards End
To Ann and Alan Nicholls. And Hannah, of course.
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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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:28 -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 6 descriptions

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