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April 2011
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bokworm Bookworm
By John Andrews

To get the year underway, I have recommended two somewhat serious books, so I thought it only fair to let you all have some fun this month. Starter for Ten, by David Nicholls, and first published in 2003, will amuse all of us who are ready to embrace some topics other than HS2 and potholes.

The story is set in 1985 and revolves around Brian Jackson, a spotty teenager from a very working class background, who manages to secure a place at an unnamed but obviously red-brick university. We follow Brian through his first year at university and witness his obsessive interest in general knowledge leading to his attempt, first to get into the university’s University Challenge team and then to make it to the finals of Granada’s TV quiz show.
Brian is initially unsuccessful, but is eventually selected after one of the other teammates falls ill. The TV show’s famous catchphrase – your starter for ten – gives the novel its title.

Brian promptly falls for the most glamorous member of the team, Alice Harbinson, but the attraction is not mutual and poor Brian is right out of his depth. He would have had more chance with the pushy self-styled Marxist, Rebecca Epstein, who lives in the same residence hall as Alice and offers advice and encouragement to Brian.
One of the themes of the novel is of course social class. Brian is a working class boy from a one parent family. His widowed mother works in Woolworths and Brian is aware from the start of his university career that his state school background, working class roots and spotty complexion make him stand out. It is interesting to note how different social attitudes quite rightly apply today, compared to twenty-six years ago.

There are some very funny set pieces in the novel, such as when Brian takes Alice out to dinner for her birthday treat and when Brian is invited to what turns out to be a disastrous weekend with Alice’s parents, who are vegetarians as well as nudists, and are unable to come to terms with Brian’s presence in their palatial cottage in the country.

Nicholls has a rare gift for dialogue and the pace of the writing is swift and direct. The ending isn’t entirely unexpected, but gets a fresh twist that makes it happy and sad at the same time without selling out.

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