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on 14 April 2011
I desperately wanted to like this book and from reading the synopsis and reviews I genuinely expected to. Unfortunately I was sadly disappointed.

The book revolves around the central character Brian and his introduction to university life. He has a difficult relationship with his mother (following the death of his father), interesting old school friends who pop up throughout the book and a complete ineptness with girls (and people in general). This ineptness is played out through his pursuit of Alice, the glamorous blonde wannabe actress, and his friendship with...was it Rebecca(?) the sassy scottish punk. Brian also has a slightly unhealthy obsession with wanting to be on University Challenge which is a running theme througout the book. I know what you're thinking...how could this possibly not have produced a 5* read.....

My main problem with the book is that I just couldn't stand Brian! I spent the whole book cringing, which I imagine is what the author intended. However, I think it all got taken a bit too far to the point where Brian had no redeeming features left! I also didn't enjoy Alice as a character either. She just didn't seem to have the same depth of character as say Emma in One Day. On a positive note, I did enjoy the more peripheral characters of Rebecca, Brian's Mum, the captain of the University Challenge team etc. I thought these were incredibly well written, my issue was with Brian himself! I know some people struggled with the character of Dex in One Day (not myself out of interest). However, if this is you, then I don't imagine that you will be Brian's biggest fan.

David Nicholls writes brilliantly as ever and his references to the 80s were subtle enough to conjure up a feeling of nostalgia without it becoming tacky. Unfortunately, his main characters let him down on this one for me.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 18 December 2007
I love both coming-of-age books and comic novels, especially British ones, and like the protagonist of this book I was a teenager in the '80s -- so this seemed to be right up my alley. The story follows Essex schoolboy Brian Jackson off to his first term of college, a process he looks forward to as being transformative. He yearns to listen to classical music and jazz ("real jazz, not Sade or The Style Council"), engage in vibrant debates into the wee hours, and of course, have sex with sultry intellectual girls. If this makes him sound annoying and pretentious, well, that's pretty much how he comes across...for the entire book. Which is more or less why I couldn't stand this book.

Part of the problem with Brian is that he makes social and personal blunders on a scale that simply aren't plausible for anyone other than a caricature. Some of his mishaps are the products of too much drinking, but there are far too many times in the book where Brian says to himself, "Don't say X" and then proceeds to. Yes, to a certain extent this is the author setting a character up for later change/improvement, but his antics are predictable and quickly tiresome. And yes, to a certain extent this is excusable in the service of comedy, but it's the same joke over and over...

A much larger problem with the book is that Brian is portrayed as (A) average looking at best, (B) intellectually shallow, (C) socially inept, and yet he manages to win the semi-affection of a wealthy, sexy, Alpha-female totally out of his league. Alice doesn't appear to like him very much, has plenty of other suitors, but does invite him home for Christmas Break (among other things)! This is ridiculous enough, but Brian is also pursued by a sassy, sexy, socialist, Scottish lassie who is out of his league in a different way. It's one thing to derive comedy out of the protagonist's improbable social floundering, but it's totally nonsensical to take the same character and make him the object of not one, but two different women's affections! It's as bad as Woody Allen's worst excesses.

In addition to Brian's personal life, there are subplots involving Brian's relationship with his two friends from back home, his relationship with his mother, and his lifelong ambition to appear on University Challenge (kind of a high-brow British version of Jeopardy played by teams from different universities). The first of these plays out in improbable fashion, and is resolved rather conveniently. The storyline involving his mother is probably the best part of the book, and is vastly more realistic and affecting than anything else. The story climaxes with the taping of the quiz show, and Brian's action there is so wildly implausible (and yet predictable) that I threw the book across the room. I then picked it back up to discover a coda even more predictable, if not quite as infuriating.

The book has its moments (very few of them), but the joke gets old quick, and I'm baffled as to why so many people rate it so highly.
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on 13 June 2011
As soon as I had finished One Day by David Nicholls I knew I couldn't wait to read more of his books but at the same time I knew I couldnt read another one straight away. The reason was that One Day was just so brilliant that I didnt want to risk not liking another of his books and being bitterly disapointed and it taking something away from the whole One Day experience.

So I purchased Starter for ten several months ago and decided last week that enough time had passed and it was time to check out more of David Nicholls writing.

Starter for ten tells the story of Brian Jackson, who sets off to university in the 1980's to start his adult life. Brian study's english literature, knows all the classics and plays, is a huge Kate Bush fan and has a bit of a gift for general knowledge so finds himself somewhat out of sync with the youth of his generation.

During his first week at university he trys out for the Universtity Challenge team and falls madly in love with the smart, posh and beautiful Alice Harbinson. The story charts the pairs growing friendship whilst training for the challenge while Brian is on a desperate quest to make Alice feel the same way about him, but as his desperation grows he starts to lose sight of the real reasons he went to university and of his family and friends back home.

Brian is a genius of a character, one minute you cant help but feel sorry for him as he reveals a lonley and isolated side to his character but next minute you will be cringing at his social awkwardness and thinking why on enough would you say something like that? He kind of reminds me of Adrian Mole as a character, in the same way that hes probably not quite the intellectual he thinks he is and is generally misunderstood but you just cant help but laugh at him while at the same time just loving his ways. The book is heavy on the 80'S nostalgia from the references to bands, TV shows and even food and drink, providing a good backdrop to the struggles of Brian as he embarks on adulthood.

The story doesn't pack the same punch emotionally as One Day but it if you want a lighthearted read to while away a sunday afternoon with a few laughs and a trip back to your teenage or university years then this is a brilliant book.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 October 2015
"I'm aware that the transition into adulthood is a difficult and sometimes painful one. I'm familiar with the conventions of the rites of passage, I know what the literary term bildungsroman means, I realise that it's inevitable that I'll look back at things that happened in my youth and give a wry, knowing smile. But surely there's no reason why I should be embarrassed and ashamed about things that happened thirty seconds ago? No reason why life should just be this endless rolling panorama of bodged friendships, fumbled opportunities, fatuous conversations, wasted days, idiotic remarks and ill-judged unfunny jokes that just lie on the floor in front of me, flipping about like dying fish?"

Starter For Ten is the first novel by British author, David Nicholls. Almost-nineteen-year-old Brian Jackson is starting University. He sees "reading English" as the opportunity to become independent of his widowed mother, meet girls, make new friends, and, who knows, maybe appear on University Challenge (something his Dad would have been thrilled about). He hopes his recently-purchased clothing, his professed hobbies and his conversation will make him seem cool, but knows he is at a disadvantage: "It's not that I'm anti-fashion, it's just that all of the major youth movements I've lived through so far, none have really fitted. At the end of the day, the harsh reality is that if you're a fan of Kate Bush, Charles Dickens, Scrabble, David Attenborough and University "Challenge, then there's not much out there for you in terms of a youth movement." and "When I say I'm interested in badminton what I really mean is that if someone held a gun to my head and forced me, on pain of death, to play one sport, and they were refusing to accept Scrabble as a sport, then that sport would be badminton."

His room in his share house will be familiar to many who experienced University during this era: "The room has the appeal and ambience of a murder scene; a single mattress on a metal frame, a matching plywood wardrobe and desk, and two small wood-effect Formica shelves. The carpets are mud-brown and seem to have been woven from compacted pubic hair. A dirty window above the desk looks out onto the dustbins below, whilst a framed sign warns that using Blu-Tack on the walls is punishable by death".

Soon after he meets the beautiful Alice Harbinson, also trying out for the University Challenge team, everything he says and does is designed to impress her. He eventually manages to ask her out on a date: "...I check my wallet for the condom that I always carry with me in case of a miracle. This particular condom ....has been in my wallet for so long now that it's stuck to the lining, and the foil wrapper has started to tarnish round the outline of the condom., like some grotesque brass rubbing. Still, I like to carry it with me, in the same way some people carry a St Christopher's medal, despite the fact that I have about as much chance of using the thing tonight as I have of carrying the infant Jesus across a river"

Even in his first novel, Nicholls demonstrates his expertise in capturing the era (fashion, popular music, TV programs, ) and in portraying the awkward, hopeful but hopelessly inept protagonist. Readers will wince at Brian's faux pas, cringe at his attempts to impress the girl and laugh out loud at his misfortunes and his self-deprecation, all the while nodding in agreement with his (perhaps naive) reasoning or groaning at his less intelligent decisions. Each chapter is prefaced with a University Challenge question that is loosely related to that chapter.

Nicholls evokes the mood with skill: "The four days in between Boxing Day and New Year's Eve are surely the longest and nastiest in the year- a sort of bloated, bastard Sunday. August Bank Holiday's the worst, though. I fully expect to die at about two-thirty in the afternoon on an August Bank Holiday. Terminal ennui". His descriptive prose is wonderfully original: Giggling, she prods me in the chest with the whisky bottle, and I realise she's very drunk; not gloomy drunk or surly drunk, but frisky drunk, playful drunk, which is a good sign, I suppose, but still a little strange and unsettling, like seeing Stalin on a skateboard". He can be succinct and wise: "'Independence' is the luxury of all those people who are too confident, and busy, and popular, and attractive to be just plain old 'lonely'". Laugh-out-loud funny, this entertaining novel is a brilliant debut.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 25 August 2015
It goes without saying that David Nicholls is a very fine TV comedy writer and there is much in this book to laugh out loud at as well as to pierce the heart. The narrator, Brian Jackson, is a single child from a Southend comprehensive whose widowed mother has scraped and save to give him the best start in life.

We first meet him in the mid-1980s on the point of going to a generic university to study English Literature [EngLit]. Throughout the book we inhabit the mind of this spotty, naïve and inexperienced social climber as he deals with the challenges of university life, flatmates, girls, lectures and managing on a limited income. Nicholls is very good in capturing the period and some of his best writing explores the gulfs that emerge between Brian’s life at home and with his two school friends, Spencer and Tone, with what he finds at university.

Brian is very keen to create a new identity, one that includes a beautiful girlfriend, writing poetry and taking part in University Challenge; before his father, a double-glazing salesman, died of a heart attack at 41 they used to watch this programme together and the boy’s fondest memories are of impressing his father by answering the occasional question. Much too easily, Brian meets the adored but self-absorbed Alice Harbison, studying Drama, and they end up on their University Challenge team.

This and Brian’s attempts to impress Alice offer much scope for humour and not a little pity as the reader sees Alice attempting to keep her distance and brian constantly misreading the situation. The scene where he is invited to her family’s ‘cottage’ for the New Year is a wonderful piece of sustained comic writing pierced by the innocence of the narrator and the perspectives of all those around him. Nicholls attacks the rather obvious targets of the pretentious wealthy vegetarian family, left-wing university politics, student untidiness, alcoholic consumption and partying, and Brian’s increasing frustrations with vigour. After a time, however, these seem just too obvious.

A Socialist Non-Orthodox Jewish Anti-Zionist Glaswegian, Rebecca, is introduced as Alice’s polar opposite and Brian’s political and moral conscious. She is sarcastic and able to engage in pointed conversations in a way that Brian can only dream about. The author’s attempts to create psychological depth for these central female characters is limited to Rebecca’s abortion and Alice’s parents’ separation.

However, with the exception of Brian, none of the characters are fully formed and the student population is almost exclusively the kind who agonise over tutorials, completing essays and discussing poetry, philosophy and life. One suspects that these are the only such students that the author has come across. It is true that one of the other University Challenge contestants is a Chinese medical student, Lucy Chang from Minneapolis, but she remains resolutely two-dimensional – her scientific experience only being relevant to difficult [i.e. non-arts] questions.

By far the most interesting parts of the book relate to Brian’s relationships with his mother who has never got over her husband’s death and with Spencer and Tone whose futures seem hopeless. Each chapter is introduced by a University Challenge question and Bamber Gascoigne makes an appearance. Brian’s O-level results increasingly seem to be his greatest success in life and his attempts to give this meaning and to knuckle down to study and respond to the opportunity that he has created for himself are lost in a series of comic and satirical scenes.

However, there is little narrative drive in a rather rambling joke-filled story that, whilst very funny, is likely to be quickly forgotten. Nicholls has considerable experience and success as a television comedy writer and whilst this shows clearly it also highlights an essential difference from novel writing. In the latter there is no requirement, sometimes showing up as desperation, to be funny/clever on every page. Had Brian’s vulnerability and loneliness been explored more deeply then a much more convincing book would have resulted – one that, on the basis of his writing, is very much within the author’s grasp, 7/10.
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on 23 January 2015
Going to university is often a life changing experience. For some it is a further step on the way to a chosen career that could last the rest of their lives. For others, it's a chance to expand their knowledge in a subject they may have enjoyed at school or never had the chance to study before. For even more, as it was for me, it's a lesson in life; a chance to live away from parents for the first time and to meet new people and new ideas.

This last is certainly true for Brian Jackson, keen to get away from his clingy widowed mother and their house in Southend. Feeling intelligent by the standards of his closest friends, it's also a chance for him to mix with people he can have a decent conversation with. But for Brian Jackson, university means one thing more than any other - the chance to make an appearance on "University Challenge".

Sadly, whilst Brian may be intelligent enough for a televised general knowledge quiz, he's sadly lacking in wisdom about the ways of the world. He's not cool enough to appeal to the beautiful and upper class Alice Harbinson, who Brian falls immediately in lust with and he can't fake being lower class well enough to impress the socialist Rebecca. While Brian's intelligence may be the path to making all his dreams come true, his lack of worldly wisdom could prove to be his downfall along the way.

Although many of the characters may seem a little clichéd, they are the kind of people you can often meet on any university campus around the country. Whilst I personally can't recall meeting people exactly like them, there are aspects of every character that I can put a name to from my university days. Perhaps most worryingly of all, I can identify quite well with Brian as being the person I was when I first went to university.
It is this familiarity, not just with the people but also the situations that gives this book a little touch of realism. There are bits you can almost reach out and touch, similar to the fanaticism for everything Arsenal in Nick Hornby's "Fever Pitch", or the impending disaster of a landmark birthday such as in Mike Gayle's "Turning Thirty". It may not be something you've experienced personally, but it is something close enough to home and accurately portrayed that you can know someone who has. Suddenly, you're not reading a work of fiction; you're a part of the story. It's not quite "This is Your Life", but it's a life you know, at least in part.

But it's not just life, it's a funny life. Yes, in some parts Nicholls has taken the most extremes of behaviour to help keep the reader amused, but he mostly manages to present even the most mundane of situations in such a way that you can't help but laugh.

But laughter isn't the most frequent thing you'll be doing as you read "Starter For Ten". For Brian is so hopeless that you can't help but cringe and squirm with embarrassment at many of his mishaps, particularly early on in the story. This is even more so if you've made similar mistakes yourself. As Brian kept putting his foot in it, missing the obvious and digging an ever deeper hole for himself in trying to make things right, I kept wanting to shout at him not to say or do what he was about to and save himself further humiliation.

But apart from having to look away in shared embarrassment with the characters, or having my concentration interrupted by the sheer naivete of their behaviour, this is a thoroughly engrossing book. It's rare to find so much you can identify with in any work of fiction, which makes me wonder if it wasn't based, at least in part, on the author's own time at university.

If you've ever been to university, particularly if you were there in the 1980's, when Brian Jackson was there, you need to read "Starter For Ten". If you've ever enjoyed "University Challenge" and wondered what the competitors have to go through to get on the show, you need to read "Starter For Ten".

The good news is that it's not too expensive to find a copy, which is a good price to pay for something that will bring back memories, although they may be more embarrassing than happy ones.

This review may also appear, in whole or in part, under my name at any or all of www.ciao.co.uk, www.thebookbag.co.uk, www.goodreads.com, www.amazon.co.uk and www.dooyoo.co.uk
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on 14 November 2015
I bought this because the film was recommended to me, and I figured the book would be better.

I haven't yet watched the film but I suspect I will be right. Much of the comedy comes from the narrator's own thoughts, a personal favourite involves giving a nickname to a student who took a gap year, that was the only bit that I literally laughed out loud at I think. I can't understand either the reviews that say this is a laugh-a-minute or those that say they didn't laugh at all. Comedy is a part of it, but only a part. There are many other factors at play. Sympathy for example. Many, I expect will at least find some common ground with the narrator, when they look back at their youth, lurching from one awkward disaster to the next, trying to find the way into adulthood. Also, simultaneously, pride, that you were never quite as bad as the narrator at navigating social situations.

The quiz aspect is quirky and fun in my opinion, every chapter begins with a UC question, of which I think I only got about 5 correct in over 40 chapters. "The Challenge" as the narrator consistently calls it, is the central theme, and there wouldn't really be a plot without it. It adds something - I don't know what - to the plot that just takes it beyond the usual rom-com, coming-of-age novels and films.

That said, I read some reviews saying the ending was predictable, and once I started reading I quickly agreed and predicted what would happen, though it didn't come about as I expected. For me though, it's a trivial point, as it's rather hard to make every single ending original and creative. Worth bearing in mind also that it's the writer's first book, so some rustiness is acceptable.

I can't give it 5 stars as it's not a *perfect* book, but it was, for me at least, a very enjoyable read, very "unputdownable", and one that I think most people will enjoy.
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on 1 November 2014
Like many others I've read "One day" and enjoyed it. I picked this one up when I noticed it was free (incidentally, at the time of writing this review it is still free ...) I'm actually quite glad I didn't pay for it, as it's distinctly mediocre.

I've given it 3 stars, but I think that's perhaps a little overgenerous. Let's say 2.5 / 5 is more realistic. So what were my issues?

- The main character is a caricature of uselessness. Any possible social-flaw you could think of is assigned to the poor chap. It reminds me of when I stopped watching friends because the situations became embarrassing rather than I-can-relate-to-that funny. (In the case of friends it was when Ross hid in a dates bathroom and squirted all her creams and lotions into his leather trousers in an attempt to get them back on again - truly cringe-worthy, and not in a good/humerous way).

- His friends - Tone and Spence - seem to exist only to drive a single plot point (and then not really anything that added much to the main story-line).

- It was blindingly obvious where it would all end up from the get-go.

- The ending, well, wasn't. It felt like he'd got bored with it all and decided to wrap it up, "epilogue style" in the form of a letter written in 6 months time. This just felt like a huge cop out.

On the plus side, there are a number of amusing parts which anybody that went to uni in the 80s/90s will probably recognise, and the whole thing is a very quick read.
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on 25 August 2010
I read "One Day" on holiday last year and thought it was pretty good, so found 'Starter for Ten' very disappointing. I'd give it two starts in light of this comparison, but as a book in its own right it probably just sneaks into the 3-start rating.

Things didn't sit well for me when I remembered Nicholls' odd penchant for writing everything in the present tense. It's a bit like reading a totally unexciting football match commentary transcript. "I pick up the book and I read it. I then decide I don't really like the writing style but I still sit by the pool and press on with it. About six chapters in the next problem comes up - all the characters are very one-dimensional and social pressures don't seem to have affected them at all, even in the most divisive of recent decades".

And that IS the next problem. The characters were mainly stereotyped (the Scottish socialist, the blonde looker who's intellectually not there, Brian's flatmates) but in addition to this the 1980s didn't appear to have had any effect on them whatsoever. There was no mention of events or movements that surely would have shaped their outlooks - strikes, Thatcherism, socialism and the SDP - are these just not there? One can't help but reach the conclusion that Nicholls set the book in the 1980s mainly to avoid having to bend the plot to fit around CCTV and cameraphones.

Of the stereotypes, the main character - Brian - is the most confused. God alone knows how he reached university with the totally unintelligent outlook he displays - he also seems to demonstrate the social skills of a sulky leper. He's capable of quoting Donne, Shakespeare and Marlowe at the drop of a hat, but lacks the intelligence to check out a restaurant properly or hold a semi-reasonable political argument. One is supposed to find him squirmishly, embarrassingly endearing, I suppose. I just found him a fool.

There was a fairly amusing moment in the book where Brian embarks on a bizarre fantasy that Alice's father is going to beat him to death in a novel and alarming way, but this was really the only moment I found funny.

The plot itself 'climaxes' with a predictable scenario on 'University Challenge'. I had, along with many others, guessed the outcome here quite a long way in advance, which didn't help either.

So in summary, if you're next to a swimming pool and want an easy read, this is OK. But it's just that. I read it in about a day and a half, arguing that it's not worth the status of anything more than a holiday flick-through.
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on 6 May 2015
This is a wonderfully comic tale full of verbal wit and hilarious turns of phrase which, in context, have one laughing out loud. Anyone who loves the music of words and responds to their cultural connotations will enjoy this book. There ARE problems, but the book still deserves my four stars.
First, the narrative is written in formal English throughout except for the oddity - mentioned by an earlier reviewer - of insisting on the ugly 'Yorkshire' present participle for two verbs (' she was stood/sat'). Exactly the same exception is made in the autobiographical works of Alan Bennett.
Secondly, there are - pace again another reviewer - a number of moments when it is just not clear what has happened or what is going on. It is not clear, for example, whether Spencer is gay or bisexual.
Thirdly, this and other books so far read by me by this author are militantly heterosexual in an exclusionary way - exactly like the works of Alan Ayckbourn (but two generations younger!). This also involves some unpleasant if mild homophobia.
It is worth concluding by insisting that the novel is not meant to be naturalistic a la Zola; the characters are (very cleverly constructed) stereotypes who exist in a series of relationships almost none of which could possibly be sustained in the real world. This is not a weakness, but it will - and has - upset some readers who believe verisimilitude is indispensable.
There are a few dull patches, but the high points are well worth anybody's time and money.
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