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3.5 out of 5 stars32
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on 4 November 2015
I've lost count of the number of reviews I've read of Ruth Rendell / Barbara Vine books as "not one of her best" and this novel certainly falls into the "could do better" category. She is least successful when concentrating on her characters' emotions and labyrinthine relationships instead of ensuring she's developing an intriguing plotline. This results in caricatures rather than credible individuals and the same dreary stereotypes crop up again and again in her various novels.The book cover claims the story is "riveting and brilliant", but again, as so many disillusioned reviewers often say, "They must have been reading a different book from me".
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I haven't read a Ruth Rendell or Barbara Vine for years, but my grandma gave me this this morning and I've just finished reading it. Really thoroughly enjoyable, with all those black twists I used to relish, and I can't think now why I stopped religiously reading her books. It's made me rediscover how much I like Rendell as a writer - none of the over-political stuff you get in PD James, just cool plotting, tightly-cranked tension and people and their weirdness. Read the back and you'll expect 1990s Westminster and S&M sex; but whatever the setting, Rendell is always all about coincidence, timing and people's fatal flaws. I loved the main character, Ivor, who is a slightly creepy Tory MP, and the two narrators, Ivor's brother-in-law Robin, who is a really mysterious being, and Jane, a lonely spinster librarian. Good fun.
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on 30 July 2009
Having just read before Taylor's ' A stain on the silence', I couldn't help but see how vastly superior 'the Birthday Present 'is and that's why I have no hesitation in giving it five stars. Had I read it after another very good book, who knows, maybe I would have given it four? But the minute I started on it I was hooked, the elegant writing , the clever characterisation, the hints that titillated but didn't reveal all, those that would eventually not lead anywhere much but allowed us to wonder in what direction the story would be going, all this reminded me of all the reasons I have always had for liking and admiring Rendell's style. I think the way she portrays her characters is what I like best. Rendell is never PC. What the protagonists feel, think and say is entirely in keeping with who they are and however distateful some of those thoughts and actions may be it is refreshing to read about callousness and selfishness and self pity. Not because they are admirable traits in themselves of course but because every single one of us feels them at one time or another and can therefore empathise and feel a connection that is impossible when characters, as is increasingly the way with some authors nowadays, are made to utter banalities that aim at offending no one and only manage to irritate. Another of her talent is the way (and I don't know how she does it) I always feel for those people in her books who are severely flawed. Instead of judging and being repelled the reader is drawn to feel compassion and to understand, in some respects, how it all came to be.
The book deals with the repercussions of an act(immoral but not criminal and that should have remained private) when it all goes wrong. MP Ivor Tesham has an affair with a married woman and let's say that they like to add some 'piquancy' to their lovemaking. When his mistress 's birthday comes round he has an idea. He will hire two men to mock abduct her, gag her and have them bring her to him. This will be her birthday present.But when the car those two men were driving causes a terrible crash, his mistress Hebe dies and so does one of the 'abductors'. The other one has suffered terrible injuries but he may recover and tell what he knows. There is also, plain Jane Atherton who used to be Hebe's friend and who provided alibis for her. She doesn't know it all but enough to make Ivor's life unpleasant and her own humdrum existence more exciting if she chose to blackmail him. A clever tale about deceit, power, loneliness, callousness and so much more, it is an exciting read that I can only highly recommend.
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on 2 July 2010
I love Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine. Usually. But this book I'm afraid I just found irritating, desperately stretched over too many pages and repetitive, repetitive, repetitive. The device she uses to tell the story - from two separate voices - both of whom are detatched from the main character, Tory MP Ivor Tesham, just does not work on any level. Conversations reported, feelings surmised, atmospheres guessed at from someone who wasn't even there at the time from the voice of Robin, the brother-in-law (who, I believe was written to be a bit of a bore - and oh boy, did she ever get that right!) and/or from a bitter and twisted female character who is hugely unlikeable. Also, judging by the back cover, you would have thought that at least it was a bit on the spicy side (not the reason I bought the book in the first place! of course not!) but no, not even that. I persevered to the end just because I always do if I have started a book but really, it was a struggle.
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on 9 April 2009
The Birthday Present is Ruth Rendell's 13th novel writing as
Barbara Vine,and is set during the tail-end of Thatcher's
government.It concerns an ambitious rising star in her government,
who is also something of a philanderer with 'lively' sexual
preferences.He arranges a birthday present for his lover,an
attractive young married woman,which consists in arranging for
her to be kidnapped,gagged and bound,and delivered to his sister's
residence.Things do not go to plan,and the tense plot involves
cover-ups and subterfuge until a few years later much of the truth
is revealed with dire consequences.
Whilst this is a gripping tale,full of suspense,superbly written
and constucted,and well worth reading ,for me it lacked the
consummate psychological acuity of the very best of Barbara Vine.
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on 3 June 2014
Ivor Tesham is a young MP and junior cabinet member in the early 1990's Conservative government . He is a rising star who is having an affair with Hebe Furnal.

Hebe is a couple years younger and is a mother with a young son in a unhappy marriage.

Ivor and Hebe's relationship is built on acting out fantasy's and neither have any love for the other.

For her Birthday Ivor has arranged for a couple of men to bundle her into a vehicle whilst she is walking along the street. She is then tied up and gagged and to be taken to Ivor. However, the gift wrapped present does not reach its destination.

When the media makes this headline news. Like a true Tory Ivan does his utmost to keep his name free from scandal.

This would work well on television and could show more of the other characters who I have not mentioned here in this review.

Although there is an MP central to this story this is not a Political novel.
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on 11 May 2013
I have never encountered a Barbara Vine book that was easy to put down, and this one is no exception. Although there is a murder, this book is not a thriller, and not as plot-driven as many Vine novels. But it does have many elements of suspense. The author creates two main characters, and we watch them slowly succumbing to wrong turnings and obsessions that eventually destroy their lives.

I like that the author did not use this book as a platform for her own political persuasions, but showed much sympathy and insight into the Tory MP she created, and made him a three-dimensional human being with dignity at his heart.

One scene did not ring true: The incident where Pandora wants to discuss the pearl necklace with Jane. I don't want to teach my grandmother to suck eggs, but why on earth would P not want to mention the pearls to hubby? I would have shown him the pearls and said 'wow, these are valuable, should we discuss what we are going to do with them?' Or 'Did you give Hebe these for a special occasion?'

Also where the narrating character changes I would have liked the chapter to be headed with the narrating character's name rather than leaving the reader floundering.
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After more than three years, Ruth Rendell's alter ego Barbara Vine finally makes her long-awaited return with this, her thirteenth novel. 'The Birthday Present' is set during the political upheavals of the early 1990s, with Margaret Thatcher about to be ousted from power and John Major waiting in the wings, while the IRA are still waging their campaign against the British government and the tabloids are full of sleazy scandals involving Tory MPs. Ivor Tesham, an up-and-coming government minister, has a taste for exotic and risky sexual adventures, but finds himself in serious trouble when his mistress is accidentally killed whilst tied up and gagged on the way to one of their trysts. The novel follows the fallout from her death, with Ivor increasingly desperate to avoid exposure as his career advances while his deceased mistress's friend is on his trail, out to get what she can from him.

As with the other Vine novels, this is not crime fiction per se; rather it's a psychological study of people who keep dangerous secrets, the unforseen and devastating effects they can have on the lives of everyone they touch and the lengths they will go to in order to make sure the secrets stay buried. Both Ivor Tesham and Jane Atherton (the mistress's friend) are flawed, desperate individuals - the kind of characters that Barbara Vine excels at creating. While there is no real mystery as such to be uncovered, there is still a real frisson of tension as events begin to spin out of control; we know disaster is imminent, but where will it come from and what will the consequences be?

No doubt readers with right-wing sympathies will object to the depiction of Tory MP Tesham or some other imagined slight but in reality Rendell is pretty even-handed; she resists the temptation to preach her own political views and, despite being a Labour peer, doesn't make Tesham into a complete monster, as she so easily could have done. In fact, it's a credit to her skill that I was surprised to find even I felt some sympathy for the man by the novel's end, however much I wanted to hate him on principle. In terms of his background and certain aspects of his personalityTesham is typical of a type that still dominates the Conservative Party today, but he is in no way a caricature.

All in all, this is a gripping, thought-provoking read which I enjoyed more than the two previous Vine novels ('The Blood Doctor' and 'The Minotaur'), good as they were. On a final positive note, it does no harm for us to be reminded that when it comes to scandal and hypocrisy, the Tories have always been in a league of their own.
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on 18 September 2009
This is the first time I've encountered Ruth Rendell as Barbara Vine And I'm not sure I'm that impressed. The narrator of the book is incredibly boring, which I can see the point of because he may otherwise detract from the intensity and interest of the other characters. Unfortunately, I didn't consider them to be particularly interesting either.

Perhaps it was the political theme to the book. I don't general find that kind of thing very gripping, but it was offset by the story of Jane, which I thought would be more my cup of tea. Unfortunately, there again, I was disappointed. Perhaps I've just read too many Rendell's to come to anything other than what I thought was the obvious outcome for Jane (and her 'boyfriend' Calum).

Telling the story backwards may have been more successful for me if the characters held more interest, but they didn't and I felt bored and frustrated the more I read, and I just wanted the book to end.

The writing was good, there's no doubt about that. But the style and construction of the narrative, combined with the dull characters, served to put me off the book. I will give her another go, though, as I see a few comments about the difference between this book and her others.
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on 19 March 2010
As some others have said, this lacked the darker twists, strange coincidences, and mysterious secrets that characterise a good Barbara Vine, and the final denoument was a little unsatisfactory. It kept building to what felt like a mega firework display, which turned out to be a damp squib. But if you are a fan of Vine, then like me, you will probably find it hard to put down.
As always, I find some of her dialogue has a strange turn of phrase, and can feel slightly dated.
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