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The Birthday Present Penguin Canada Barbara Vine

31st August 2012 Literature & Fiction 54 Comments

Ivor Tesham is a handsome, single, young member of Parliament whose political star is on the rise. When he meets a woman in a chance encountera beautiful, leggy, married woman named Hebethe two become lovers obsessed with their trysts, spiced up by what the newspapers like to call adventure sex.

Its the dress-up and role-play that inspire Ivor to create a surprise birthday present for his beloved that involves a curbside kidnapping. Its all intended as mock-dangerous foreplay, but then things take a dark turn.

After things go horribly wrong, Ivor begins to receive anonymous letters that reveal astonishingly specic details about the affair and its aftermath. Somehow he must keep his role from being uncoveredand his political future from being destroyed by scandal.

Like a heretic on the inquisitors rack, Ivor is not to be spared the exquisitely slow and tortuous unfolding of events, as hints, nuances, and small revelations lay his darkest secrets hideously bare for all the world to see.

The Birthday Present is a deft, insightful, and compulsively readable exploration of obsessive desireand the dark twists of fate that can shake the lives of even those most insulated by privilege, sophistication, and power.

In her newest Barbara Vine novel, Rendell has crafted a subtly sordid tale studded with imaginative plot twists and black humor. Though she reveals Teshams eventual downfall within the first few pages, Rendell builds a great deal of tension into her complex, tightly constructed plot, and her descriptions of Teshams sexual adventures, though accurate, are never lurid. Interestingly, most British critics panned the novela possible reaction to the liberal Rendells political leanings or a jaded familiarity with the national events framing the plot. However, American critics praised The Birthday Present, calling it one of [Rendells] best literary excursions to date (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). Readers in search of a smart, fast-paced thriller by an expert storyteller will appreciate Vines latest.
Copyright 2009 Bookmarks Publishing LLC –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Vine, the pen name of Ruth Rendell (whose Reginald Wexford mysteries are among the best of contemporary British procedurals), turns in anotherinvolving stand-alonethat explores the twists and turns ofhuman behavior.Flipping between theperspectives of two unacquainted narrators, she chronicles the rise and fall of a self-indulgentBritish politician, whose careercollapses, in part,becauseof a tragic stroke of bad luck. Ivor Tesham, a rising star inJohn Majors liberal party, is shocked when he learns about the death of his mistress, killed in a car accident while on her way to him, bound andblindfolded, as the willing victim of a faux kidnapping meant to set the stage for a birthdaygift of adventurous sex. Fearing public censure, Tesham stays quiet, despite the advice from his sister and brother-in-law.As might be expected, hisselfish decisiongradually ripples outward, leading to unexpected consequences not only for himself but also for the other vicitims of the accidentespeciallythe womans troubled friend.As with her other psychological thrillers, Vine writes with calm elegance, slowly unravelling the story whileconstructing a strong sense ofplace, politics,and social class to support her players. Its the very ordinariness of her characters and the randomness of their lives thatcreate the drama here. –Stephanie Zvirin –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

The Birthday Present

  • 54 responses to "The Birthday Present Penguin Canada Barbara Vine"

  • Dick tator
    4:11 on August 31st, 2012
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    I am one of the apparant few who haven’t yet read a Vine/Rendell novel, and for me, it was an experience. There are those who say this isn’t one of her best and so I’m indeed anxious to reed more by her.You know the basic plot from other reviews. The kinky element and the reactions of the main characters add zest to what is basically a relating of the effect of tragic flaws in the main characters. Good and evil; right and wrong are not issues here. Basic here is an examination of human nature and of life itself revealing how the most trivial seeming decisions can have devastating effects on one’s own life and on the lives one touches.Needless to say, I will be reading more by the author.

  • Ron Mitchell
    5:49 on August 31st, 2012
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    Absolutely gorgeous. I still like A Fatal Inversion and perhaps No Night is Too Long better, but this one is magnificent. As usual in a BV novel, the psychology is subtle and complex. Vine does not clobber you over the head with it, but advances it through motifs and imagery. Yes, there are implausible happenings and a really wild coincidence or two, but the narrative sustains itself so well from one page to the next that one can easily accept the ending.

  • Brock
    7:44 on August 31st, 2012
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    Writing as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell’s “The Birthday Present” is an extended flashback in which two narrators look back at a sordid incident and its tragic aftermath. Ivor Tesham, a handsome and ambitious graduate of Eton and Oxford, becomes a Tory MP at thirty-one and seems destined for political stardom. However, his self-centeredness and desire for sexual excitement propel him to take foolish risks, and when things go terribly wrong, he becomes an emotional wreck. Ivor’s cautionary tale is narrated by Rob, an accountant and Ivor’s staid brother-in-law, and Jane Atherton, the dowdy and resentful best friend of Ivor’s married mistress, a beautiful twenty-seven year old named Hebe Furnal who shares her lover’s kinky tastes.

    Rob and his wife, Iris, Ivor’s sister, serve as a mini-Greek chorus. Although they bear some blame for enabling Ivor to carry out an imprudent scheme, no one could have foreseen how fate would turn a sick charade into a catastrophe. Instead of presenting the facts in a linear manner, Rendell allows Rob and Jane to report their version of events with their biases intact, forcing us to figure out who did what to whom and why. Rendell uses black humor and complex plot machinations to shine a spotlight on human frailties, with an emphasis on obsession, greed, and egotism. Ivor jeopardizes his career and reputation for the sake of a tawdry adventure; Hebe puts her marriage and her son’s welfare at risk to carry on a clandestine liaison with an attractive and wealthy man. Jane Atherton is a homely and dejected woman, one of a “faceless tribe” who “go to bed alone and get up alone.” She is a perpetual victim whose low-paying job, manipulative and nagging mother, and solitary existence fill her with bitterness and self-pity.

    “The Birthday Present” is laced with surprises and last-minute plot twists. Unlike other works by this author that are almost painfully misanthropic, this book encourages us to understand and feel compassion for the characters, most of whom want a better life for themselves and someone with whom to share it. It is too bad, she implies, that so many of us have a penchant for self-destruction. It is almost as if we are tempted to stand on a cliff just to see how close we can come to the edge without falling off. Even if we play by the rules and try to do the right thing, however, life can be horribly unfair. “The Birthday Present” is an original, edgy, and deliciously ironic mystery in which Rendell tempers her usual cynicism with a welcome dose of empathy.

  • ashgaba
    8:42 on August 31st, 2012
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    The book itself was great – another excellent read by Barbara Vine. But the Kindle edition contained a lot of separated words, which can be very distracting as they interrupt the flow while reading. I have read many books on my Kindle and have not encountered this issue before. It was annoying.

  • moreco
    9:56 on August 31st, 2012
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    I agree with the reviewer who says that while this isn’t Vine/Rendell’s best novel, even her second-best is so superior to most other suspense novels that it automatically deserves 5 stars!

    I believe that Ruth Rendell writes as Barbara Vine when she wants to say things that she feels are “off the subject” of her superb mysteries, and in THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT I wonder if she isn’t experimenting with seeing an event from all angles, and presenting just how limited each individual’s perception really is. At one point the 5 or 6 main characters in this story all know a different piece of the story, and their conclusions about it are thus all different, which is really fascinating. I suspect that this is a very challenging task for a writer, and the results are interesting, even though in the end she has to resort to several devices (not to give away any spoilers) to satisfy us, the devout readers of mystery novels, who demand that all loose ends be tied!

    The politics are a nice aside in this novel, as is the point of view of the main narrator, who is a new father at the beginning of the story, with all the attendant opinions and anxiety. Rendell is doing something — I’m not quite sure what — with the way that people and news events (scandals) change as they age. Years after the scandal leaves the public eye, the people it involved are still experiencing the repercussions. Almost everything that happens after the scandal is based on one or another person’s fear, anger, or greed — whether or not any of those emotions are actually warranted! It’s almost as if the traditional “tidy” mystery, with everything resolved within a short period of time, is turned inside out and stretched, so we can see the ragged seams and gaping holes.

    Do give it a read — Rendell’s writing is always excellent, and you will be carried along effortlessly. I was dismayed by how short the book was; it could easily have been double its size. But that’s often the way with Rendell — she lets you into the trivia as well as the main events of her characters’ lives, and you always want more. Maybe THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT deserves those 5 stars on its own merits, after all.

  • Chad lituski
    10:47 on August 31st, 2012
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    I found this OK, but I was hoping for more. The author is great at creating characters, especially repulsive unsocial ones like Jane, who is jealous of her girlfriend Hebe’s beauty, friends, family life, etc. She tries to step right into Hebe’s life after her death. It doesn’t work out. Had the book stayed focused on Jane I think it would have been better, but the other characters weren’t as interesting, and there was no exciting climax. So a fair to good read, but not great.

  • Mark Song
    11:45 on August 31st, 2012
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    Though Grasshopper was worth the reading, I think that fans of Vine/Rendell know there are better novels by her out there. If you’re not familiar with this author and haven’t read King Solomon’s Carpet, if you enjoyed this book, I’d highly recommend that one. It seems to succeed where this one falls a little flat. Grasshopper didn’t make my favorite Barbara Vine book list…but it came close. Still, the characters in Grasshopper were thought-provoking and this alone made it all worthwhile. Nobody can create characters and set a mood like Barbara Vine.

  • Teabagbow
    12:08 on August 31st, 2012
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    Barbara Vine is a master at exposing the extraordinariness of ordinary people. The central characters in “Grasshopper” might appear to be slackers, aimless and uninteresting, but under her penetrating gaze they reveal virtues and fatal flaws of almost Shakespearean proportions.

    Despite widely differing backgrounds and personalities, several young people have united in their determination to make their own rules. One way they rise above conventional society – literally – is by running around on rooftops (an activity that while no doubt exhilarating for the participants is not all that engaging for readers.) Their bids for freedom meet with varying success, for as Vine always shows us, the real world has a way of insinuating itself and its rules into even the most exclusive social circles. And then there are those pesky hang-ups that tend to stay with us wherever we go.

    It’s impossible to guess how Vine’s novels are going to end despite her frequent use of foreshadowing. Sometimes it’s just a hint; sometimes it’s a startling fact about the future or the yet undiscovered past. Far from spoiling the suspense, these tidbits tend to pique the reader’s interest. “Now, how does that person wind up doing that?” When it comes to absorbing characters and psychological suspense, nobody does it better.

  • not hot
    13:50 on August 31st, 2012
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    grasshopper is a wonderful and involving coming of age story. In typical Vine/Rendell fashion there are many dark and disturbing twists alomg the way in this gripping tale. I cannot recommend a current work of fiction any higher. This ranks with the best of Elizabeth george and Larwence Block. Without giving away the plot,since it will be a pleasure to discover that for yourself,I can say this is a deep and disturbing story that will stay with you long after youve finished the last page.

  • Andrew L
    15:45 on August 31st, 2012
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    There aren’t too many authors out there who can write under two names with equal skill, critical praise, and public acclaim. Ruth Rendell, aka Barbara Vine is one of them. No matter which name she uses, Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine writes disturbing mysteries about people who are living on the edge, whether that edge is economic, social, moral, or psychological. In her books, innocence and the best of intentions are no protection against evil or moral turpitude. In addition, randomness and merely rotten bad luck play their part in the ultimate fate of her characters.

    The Birthday Present by Barbara Vine is no exception. In this case, a morally lax but otherwise very successful upper-class politician named Ivor Tesham finds himself entangled in a web of lies, primarily of his own making and slowly deteriorates as his fear of being discovered grows with each passing day. As is so often the case in politics or in any other form of celebrity, the discovery of a cover-up often brings more censure than the actual misdeed itself. Despite being warned by his friends and family to come clean and face the consequences, Ivor Tesham chooses to tell more lies and put his fate in the hands of people who are mostly concerned with holding sway over him.

    Because this is a Barbara Vine novel the writing is excellent, erudite, and at times almost too cool in the face of impending disaster. The Birthday Present is full of tense moments where the reader would normally be quite concerned with the fate of Ivor; yet Ivor is so indifferent to the emotions of others that it is difficult if not impossible to be much moved by his emotional quandaries. He suffers it is true, but for the most part, through his own cold hearted machinations. His character keeps the reader at an emotional remove, and this lack of connection with its primary protagonist keeps The Birthday Present from being a truly affecting or powerful story. As a novel it is worth reading, but it is not quite up to Barbara Vine’s usual standards.

  • replicas
    16:15 on August 31st, 2012
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    If you have never read a Ruth Rendell or Barbara Vine novel, stop! Put Grasshopper down and move slowly away. Read Thirteen Steps Down or The Water’s Lovely or The Rottweiler first. After you’ve become a committed fan, you may return to Grasshopper.

    I read Grasshopper when it first came out a few years ago, but it was so-o-o slow and uneventful that I skipped along and didn’t appreciate the story as it played out. I decided to give it another try recently and was finding that I had the same opinion of it. Slow. No murders. A generally gloomy ambience, but not much tension.

    But as I made my way to the end, I started to see what was going on. The horror here isn’t evil. It’s disastrous consequences committed by people with the best intentions. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American explored the same theme and so did Shakespeare, probably. Still, it’s a theme that has rather a lot of relevance these days, and it’s particularly horrifying the way it sneaks up on you, in Grasshopper and in real life.

  • Bill C
    16:32 on August 31st, 2012
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    …but the one I read was magnificent. Much like “The House of Stairs” and “A Fatal Inversion”, “Grasshopper” deals with the trials and tribulations of a mismatched assortment of roommates whose good intentions lead to disaster. The prose is tight, the characters are fascinating and occasionally infuriating, the criminality is sometimes troublingly ambiguous, and the story is first-rate. My only disappointment? That I finished it so quickly! Stop reading this review this instant and order the book.

  • Person Man
    18:07 on August 31st, 2012
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    Ivor Tesham is young, single, highly sexed-and a bit kinky. His political star is rising in Britain when he meets the beautiful and very married housewife, Hebe Furnal, the mother of one child, wife of Gerry. The affair is abruptly terminated when Hebe dies in a car accident that was meant to be a mock kidnapping that was part of her sexual playacting with Ivor.

    The police determine Hebe’s death as a case of mistaken identity, and Ivor seems to have avoided discovery as her lover. But five years following Hebe’s death, things become undone. Someone knows details about Ivor’s relationship with Hebe and her death. If Ivor’s role in Hebe’s life is discovered, his political future will be over.

    The story is slowly and painfully revealed from the perspective of Ivor’s brother-in-law, Rob Delgado, an accountant, and Hebe’s “so-called” friend, Jane Atherton, who provided the alibis for Hebe when she was seeing Ivor.

    Barbara Vine examines her characters thoughtfully. She knows exactly what each one will do in every circumstance that arises. Their personalities and behavior mimics, in many ways, the cruel part that exists in all of us to some degree. The clarity with which Vine unfolds the story, and the characters’ agendas, is breathtaking. My only criticism is that the “unfolding” is somewhat drawn out and tedious at times. That said, The Birthday Present is well worth the time.

    Armchair Interviews says: Barbara Vine is the pseudonym of Ruth Rendell who has won three Edgar Awards and four Gold Daggers

  • Jenni
    19:07 on August 31st, 2012
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    An old scandal comes back to haunt an ambitious politician in Barbara Vine’s latest novel of psychological suspense. Years ago, this Tory rising star in Britain’s Parliament was involved in a kinky “birthday present” encounter that ended tragically. Now, someone is using blackmail to derail his plans for higher office….

    Barbara Vine is a pseudonym of Ruth Rendell, my all-time favorite mystery writer, and her “Barbara Vine” novels are always literate, exciting, and thoroughly enjoyable. Because the author herself is so involved in Brit politics, it was probably inevitable that she would use that rarefied world as the background for one of her novels. Well, now she has–and her own Labour leanings (in America, that would translate as “left wing”) are all-too-apparent in this cautionary tale. Her Tory (“right wing”) victim’s decline and fall provides the reader with a mini-history of British politics in the last few years, with much emphasis on some very real, very high-profile sex scandals like the one in her story. I usually give her books an automatic 5-star review, but her preoccupation with backroom politics gives THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT a preachy quality that I (for one) could have done without. Still, it’s an interesting story, and her writing is vivid, as always.

    PS: Her new “Ruth Rendell” novel, PORTOBELLO, is terrific.

  • Jake Rancen
    21:02 on August 31st, 2012
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    Ivor Tesham, an up-and-coming member of Parliament in London, is slowly and painfully undone by his affair with a married woman and their fondness for “adventure sex.” When he stages a mock kidnapping for her birthday present, things go horribly wrong, and Ivor’s first and continuing reaction is to keep his name and career out of the mess. Unfortunately, too many people know what really happened and of course fate will not allow Ivor to outrun his eventual ruin.

    This book is narrated by Ivor’s brother-in-law (a wonderfully sypmpathetic character) and Jane Atherton, who was the mistress’s alibi and who begins to keep a diary and scrapbook in which she reveals her obsession with the mistress’s bereft husband. Jane’s scribbling also reveals her own crazy, bumbling campaign to ruin Ivor.

    I thought the book moved a little slowly for a while, but it does pay off as events and twists reveal themselves all in good time. Vine (Ruth Rendell’s alter ego) loves to play with the darker aspects of personality, and this book is both dark and darkly humorous – a nice combination.

  • Terry Lamb
    21:33 on August 31st, 2012
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    Because of the accident on the pylon, Clodagh has been banished to the city, to a dingy basement flat below the large house of one of her parents’ friends. Soon, prisoner of her near-claustrophobia, she bursts free when she discovers the residents of the top floor of nearby 15 Russia Road. Caring Silver, violent Jonny, weak and waspish Liv, and mysterious Wim. However, coming into contact with this fascinating bunch of misfits and their curious come-and-go lifestyle as they roam free up on the roofs will put Clodagh right in the path of tragedy once more…

    This book is both everything you would expect from Vine, and also a lot more besides. Some, I suppose, may be disappointed with the fact that it does veer off in a slightly unexpected direction and become a book entirely different from what you might at first have suspected, but others should simply appreciate the author’s ability to take her story in unexpected, original directions. Grasshopper is a brilliantly eerie, haunting piece of work right from its stunning opening sentence – “They have sent me here because of the accident on the pylon.” – it is nostalgic and shadowy, and ominous to the last word. Foreboding cats a dark cloud over the whole plot and all the characters, and the writing is superb, as ever. The whole thing shivers and sways as the plot moves gradually along and suspense is eked out mercilessly.

    The characters are fascinating – brilliantly drawn and entirely real. Vine (and Rendell) has always been at her best when she is creating a story about a group of people variously damaged in some way. There is no writer more adept at placing herself squarely in the collective mind of society’s deviants; those who exist on its periphery. Here, in particular, she shows a piercing ability to write about the young with accuracy and, very occasionally, tenderness.

    The book, although shiveringly realistic, is made to sparkle by the fact that it, at times, is rather surreal. The group of misfits, exploring London from its roofs, and their adventures, add a distinct magical quality to the book that is entirely missing in most fiction. It creates in the readers a deep longing to even briefly experience the bizarre world of these characters, to live as freely as they do in their eccentric way, while all the while they want to distance themselves because it’s clear something dreadful is going to happen.

    Something rare in a Vine novel is its warmth. It’s not a warmth that is obviously apparent, but it is there, if you trouble to look for it. It sits cosily beneath the story and only really makes itself clear when you finish it. It is only a tiny bit of warmth, though, but it is vaguely comforting, especially after the disastrous end. I’ve read people complain that this book is too predictable, too easily guessable because Vine hints at the outcome too often. Not true! The final satisfying surprise, I assure you, is as elusive as ever in a Vine novel. Admittedly, some of the twists along the way are guessable, but Vine makes it clear that that is exactly the point, through her narrator, at least once. Personally, therein is another beauty of the book: the fact that you can see things about to occur, but there is nothing you can stop them and there is also no way you could possibly stop reading.

    Grasshopper, a book about freedom and responsibility and growing up and belonging (in the end, we realise, along with Clodagh, that the place we all of us should really belong is the place where we are welcomed, where we are accepted most warmly,) is another fine novel from Barbara Vine.

  • mediaman
    22:02 on August 31st, 2012
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    I hadn’t read any reviews of this book when I started it. I assumed it would be a typical Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell mystery – people get killed, the rest of the book is spent figuring out whodunnit. This book is not like that at all. It isn’t a mystery. I enjoyed it very much though – it held my interest.

  • retardedly
    0:13 on September 1st, 2012
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    Tightly woven plot, complex characterizations and an amazingly talented reader (audio version). What more could you want? Vine’s books receive consistent rave reviews from both sides of the Atlantic and its easy to see why. I am mystified by the number of unfavorable reviews of this book and felt compelled to add mine to offset the 1 and 2-starred reviews. U.S. fans should be looking forward to reading The Minotaur which is scheduled to be released in March 2006. I was lucky enough to obtain a copy from Great Britain and loved every minute of it as well.

  • CataMobile
    1:06 on September 1st, 2012
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    This book reminded me of how I felt about the film, BABETTE’S FEAST, slow and labourous getting through it but coming to end finding I have enjoyed the story as a whole. I did skip through lots of bits, particularly the nightly excusions on the rooftops–but that is more a matter of taste in subject rather than a reflection on the author’s ability to spin a tale.

    2:45 on September 1st, 2012
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    For the first few chapters of this book you do have to pay close attention. Not every author could get away with this but, hey! It’s Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine. I trust and know absolutely that she knows what she’s doing and that if I just hang in there I’ll be in for quite a ride.

    Her gift tends to be for describing the unraveling mind. This is not a mystery so much as a fascinating portrait of jealousy and envy. It’s not so much a matter of solving the crime as wishing you could warn the characters where they’re headed.

  • ifoon
    4:10 on September 1st, 2012
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    I am a dedicated Rendell fan but also enjoy all genres of writing. This is atypical for Rendell but I found it more literary and for me just as enjoyable. Unlike the murder mysteries, this is a tale of recovery and coming of age after the accidental death of a friend. I rank the writing of this book superior to Rendell’s other works but may be less enjoyed if one is expecting a murder mystery. I was left feeling highly satisfied after reading it, as after a gourmet meal. Viva la Rendell!

  • Jacob Closson
    5:25 on September 1st, 2012
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    Great premise, terrific writing however I felt there were serious structural problems throughout the novel…first person POVs muddied whose head I was in; character overload; story told as a flashback that then weakened the suspense; no heroic characters; somewhat contrived plot.

  • t-shirts FTL
    7:34 on September 1st, 2012
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    Alter egos are rarely as strong and convincing as the original persona. Fortunately Barbara Vine, the alternate writing identity of Ruth Rendell, is an exception. Barbara Vine’s works are usually masterly suspense novels filled with unexpected plot twists, intriguing characters, and fascinating settings. Usually they turn on a small group of present day characters who are affected by past (sometimes long past) events that have endufing ramifications.

    The Birthday Present is one of Vine’s best. Ivor Tesham is an up and coming Member of Parliament in the early 1990s, on the fast track to high office in Margaret Thatcher and John Major’s Tory Party. He’s rich, urbane, and sophisticated, with a taste for sexual adventure that embroils him with some embarrassing hangers on. His story is told by two separate characters, his brother in law and a sad, delusional woman who was a friend of one of Tesham’s lovers. The two points of view interweave his story and those of his family and associates over a period of about five years.

    This is an exciting story with plenty of unexpected twists and turns. In addition to the main plot line, Vine provides a lot of interesting material on British political affairs in the early 1990s. I was somewhat apprehensive about The Birthday Present because I felt the previous Vine book, The Minotaur, was not up to her usual standard, but The Birthday Present was highly satisfactory.

  • Paul S
    8:43 on September 1st, 2012
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    After having read Barbara Vine’s latest novel, “Grasshopper,” I thought I’d peruse the reviews. The pros are full of praise (if not outright ecstatic words) about this book; it disappointed just about all of the civilians (readers). Why, I asked myself. A few thoughts thereon: this book has some things in common with the previous ones by Barbara Vine, to be sure, but it has no Great Revelation in the last pages (in fact, the author herself says that who “my husband” is will not surprise the reader), and there are some unanswered situations as well. Not typical. Not totally tidy. But not bothersome, either, at least, to this reader. The book is full of the usual Vine touches: lots of details about places, lots of little lists here and there, much to do with food and drink, and (especially for one character) wardrobe. The writing is graceful, not fussy, literate (mostly . . . wait a bit), and time frames are easy to understand. The many biographies are well set throughout the book, and the details are interestingly expressed. The almost-villainous characters have some redeeming features. There is social comment (on adoption, on treating obsessive behavior, on the problems with institutional these-are-our-rules attitudes, on the hungry-for-fodder press). I think of this as a coming-of-age novel, with some overtones of suspense, some of unearthing the mysteries of the past to explain the present, but none of the wilder aspects of (for example) my Vine favorite: NO NIGHT IS TOO LONG (the English translation of a line from the von Hoffmanstal libretto for DER ROSENKAVALIER), which also has a less-than-usual setting in the U.S., for part of the book. I think that Vine is trying something new with GRASSHOPPER, and I found it convincing, if not as outright page-turning, as many of her earlier works have been. I think of this latest effort as being rather like Patricia Highsmith’s less-than-suspenseful novels (which are rather in the Graham Green mode), as opposed to, for instance, her marvelous RIPLEY series – and I’m a fan of both. It’s good that Vine is not simply writing the same (albeit, satisfying) work over and over, and I must admit that reading this prompts me to say that I’ll look forward to the next one. I am distressed, though, that the author does not observe the difference between “awhile” (the adverb) and “a while” (the noun phrase); further, I’m sorry to see that she has fallen into the less-than-laudable habit of using “like” as a conjunction. In these cases, I always ask if one would re-name the Shakespeare play: “Like You Like It”? One more: on page 279, 3rd paragraph, she writes, “But neither of them . . . were” and, of course, the verb should be “was.” Where are the editors?

  • David Deffenbaugh
    9:02 on September 1st, 2012
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    I picked up this book at a used book sale and was not aware until I had finished it that Barbara Vine was Ruth Rendell (or v/v). Her protagonist, Clodagh is a young woman who loves to climb (and has some claustrophobia) and who has suffered a horrible tragedy as a 16 year old (inadvertently involved with the death of her sweetheart), and is sent to live with relatives in London. Her aunt and uncle are weird birds and she spends most of her time alone and in the basement apartment they have her cooped up in. Unable to get into school (which is why shes there), she stumbles over a strange group of other youngsters who either live or hang out in the penthouse apartment across the street.

    Before long she falls for the owner of the apartment, Silver, who takes her out to the rooftops of London. Its a rough and eccentric bunch with Silver, including an au pair from Sweden who is fleeing pretty much everything, a very quiet young man who is only alive at night on the roofs of the city, and a psychopathic delinquent whose behavior we fear, comes to damage in the end. The group of climbers eventually become involved with a couple fleeing the police (who would take their child from them), and the climax of the story, while not terribly surprising, is still satisfying. This was a novel of complex characters, well written, well woven, and worth reading.

  • Alecaldi
    10:17 on September 1st, 2012
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    If this were a true story, a roman a clef in the style of Dominick Dunne, it would probably be interesting. As it is, a work of fiction, it is a well-written eventual bore, as if Vine had challenged herself to make a suspenseful story out of an ordinary event that occurs at the beginning of the book and takes years–in which little happens–to work its unsurprising way through a plot. Its strong points are good writing, interesting and true characters, and a peek into the workings of party politics in England during the Major era. Borrow it from the library, so you can skip through the pages without feeling resentment at money spent on suspense that isn’t.

  • Scott Moore
    12:13 on September 1st, 2012
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    Barbara Vine (better known as Ruth Rendell) is an amazing writer – she is able to weave a complex plot with intriguing characters and situations that totally engross the reader. Her characters are often on the fringes of sanity and her novels are dark – for that reason, I think a lot of readers bypass her books. That is their loss. I can’t recommend an author higher than Rendell.

    I was a tad apprehensive about “The Birthday Present” when I read that it involved politics but that aspect of the novel is really very minor. Two narratives – one from the brother-in-law of an arrogant Parliament member whose affair with a married woman turns tragic and initiates a string of consequences that continue for the remainder of the novel. The second narrative comes from Jane, a friend of the mistress who provided her alibis. Totally mesmerizing, totally unpredictable and a wholly satisfying read. Highly recommended.

  • KoningWilko
    12:24 on September 1st, 2012
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    I couldn’t put this book down. I think that the reviewers who didn’t like it were reacting to its not being a typical “mystery” but more of a psychological suspense novel. I don’t think an author who has written over fifty novels can be expected to reproduce the same exact formula in each book. It would get very old. Here, the characters are brilliantly drawn, and very interesting, but they are not mainstream characters. They are young adult misfits, and as such rang very true to me. The part about roof climbing was not so farfetched either — I don’t know if people do it, but if they bungee jump, then it certainly is possible. I also remember reading a story years ago about two young people caught making love (by a traffic helicopter) on top of a bridge tower in NYC.

    I find it refreshing that Rendell/Vine writes about outsiders — I get tired of reading about lawyers and academics. And these are middle-class outsiders, not so very far from many readers and our children. I found Clodagh believable if not entirely engaging, and Silver, her boyfriend, right on. An idealistic young man with an inherited income who does not distinguish between good and evil, but finds everyone interesting, and learns through experience observing the other young people in his flop of an apartment. He cannot imagine evil until he meets it…

    That said, it does not really have one main story line, but multiple threads, without a central conclusion. That didn’t bother me. If you enjoy a read you can really get your teeth into, this is for you. If you prefer a standard mystery formula, then maybe not.

  • Joseph A. Satto
    12:55 on September 1st, 2012
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    “Grasshopper” may not be one of Barbara Vine’s best novels (and I have read all of them), but I just got over the flu, and spent the last two days riveted to this book. I kept intending to go back to bed and sleep, but couldn’t put this down. So much for it being boring.

    Still, I could say the same about virtually any of Rendell/Vine’s work. “Grasshopper” features rich characterizations and a fine narrative that carries the story rattling forward. Where it falls short of her earlier achievements is in the plot, which is contrived in places. Elements from previous works (“A Fatal Inversion,” “King Solomon’s Carpet”, and “The Tree of Hands”) are recycled here, less effectively than in the earlier works. Rendell always drops subtle hints about what is to come and makes extensive use of foreshadowing, but here the payoff is less than what her readers have come to expect. Usually she succeeds in delivering at least one jaw-dropping surprise per book, and puts in a vicious twist of the knife at the end. Unfortunately, she does not do that in “Grasshopper.”

    In spite of these shortcomings, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The central character in particular is believable and appealing, and as always the narrative is peppered with Rendell’s keen observations of human behavior. I would recommend this book for those familiar with her work; however for those who are not, “A Fatal Inversion” or “A Dark-Adapted Eye” are better places to start. (For a very fast read, try “The Tree of Hands”, or “Going Wrong.”)

  • birumutb
    13:32 on September 1st, 2012
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    When a new Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell mystery is released, her fans celebrate. Vine is Rendell’s alter ego, and in that incarnation her books are a bit edgier, a little more grisly, somewhat sexier and often more political. Such is the case with THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT, a highly suspenseful cautionary tale, mixing murder, morality and politics. Vine is a life peer on the Labor side, who uses her knowledge of and experience in Parliament to tell the story of Ivor Tesham, who sits on the Conservative side. The narrative is imbued with a sense of fear and doom as IRA bombings, the Gulf War and corrupt politicians are very real threats that have invaded and overshadow England.

    In addition to the threats that shatter the nerves of the populace, the time frame plays out after Margaret Thatcher’s defeat in 1992, when John Major became Prime Minister and was re-elected in 1997. The narrator is an “insider” who knows many secrets and tells readers that, because politics bores him, he “shall gloss over a great deal of this aspect of Ivor’s life…touching on what [he thinks is] interesting.” He goes on to say that Jane Atherton’s diary is a history of both Ivor and Hebe, his married mistress, and shall be his guide.

    Ivor is a 33-year-old elitist bachelor whose snobbery is legion, but is not above slinking around in a “kinky” affair with a married woman. He has money, savoir-faire and sees the world as his to embrace with an insatiable sense of entitlement. He is a conniver and a fast-thinking, self-serving “swinger” whose life comes apart because he went one step too far.

    But the power brokers like Ivor, who will do anything from taking kickbacks to stuffing ballot boxes, are going to have a rude awakening when they hear John Major’s new Parliamentary rules. Any form of sleaze or wrongdoing is permanently banned from the domains of the members. So, of course, the “dirt” goes underground.

    The other major character in this superb novel is Jane Atherton, who kept the diary. She is a plain woman who leads a very simple life and watches as her “friend” Hebe runs around with her paramour (Jane is her alibi resource), her husband, her baby (for whom Jane is the babysitter) and her other “businesses.” For Jane, Hebe lives in a parallel universe — one of society and clothes and cars and motherhood and the intrigue of affairs. In truth, Jane is very envious, and as time moves on she becomes more and more angry and bitter. As she looks back, she begins to feel used, betrayed and “rage at the Gods” for her tiny space in the world.

    The architecture of the book is shaped around a surprise birthday present for Hebe. Ivor and some friends think up a plan to “kidnap” her for “adventurous sex,” the latest fad among a certain element of society. But as is the case with the “best laid plans,” the joke ends up in catastrophe and death. At first, Iris, her husband and the men hired for the gig are the only ones who know the real story. Then, after the catastrophic events of that night, the personalities of the characters start to change and their dark sides emerge. Two people are dead and one remains in the hospital languishing between life and death.

    As events unfold and time passes, the actors who took part in the false kidnapping of Hebe cross paths in one way or another. Blackmail, threatened lives, tragic disabling of two characters and death are the primary reasons for meetings to take place. A string of pearls becomes a focal point and provokes a confrontation as does articles used in kinky sadomasochistic sex. Jane is enthralled by all of it. But her connection to Ivor is a dangerous one, and in her na?veté and lack of worldliness she is foiled at every turn.

    Clues are generously sprinkled among the red herrings for readers who enjoy keeping track of such things. They will find themselves wholly satisfied. Vine weaves a powerful story of the fall from grace of a man who lived without thought for anyone but himself and who “carries within him all the hypocrisy, greed and self-obsession of a troubled era.” THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT is a slight departure from the usual Barbara Vine psychological thrillers. It is a testament to her flexibility and skill in putting together such a heady book that is also accessible to readers.

    — Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum

  • Judy Cornelius
    17:08 on September 1st, 2012
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    This is a novel about obsession, and the impact is has on several people who live together in a London flat. Clodagh, living with a distant relation in Maida Vale, is deathly afraid of climbing, and of heights. However, when she meets Silver and his friends, all of that changes, and she becomes entwined in the magical world of rooftop climbing. What happens in this superb novel is something only Barbara Vine could come up with. She is a master of psychological suspense, as she plays with her characters (and her readers) to no end. There’s no way that anybody can guess how this novel is going to end. This is the third or fourth book I have read by RR/BV, and this book surpassed all that I expected of her. Highly engaging, but dark and mysterious at the same time, this novel will keep you at the edge of your seat, not knowing what the master of suspense has in store for you.

  • Mike McGrath
    17:19 on September 1st, 2012
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    It’s the early 1990s, and Ivor Tesham, Tory MP, is in the middle of an affair with Hebe Furnal, a glamorous housewife who shares his taste for S&M. When the car Ivor’s arranged to kidnap Hebe crashes and she dies, Ivor decides to hide his involvement in the affair from the police. Over the ten years or so, as Ivor’s fortunes rise and fall, he is terrified that things will come to light and his political career will be over.

    The story is told from two points of view: Ivor’s brother-in-law Robyn; and Hebe’s best friend Jane, a sad, pathetic, obsessive, and mostly deluded librarian (she’s a classic Vine character) who provides Hebe with an alibi while she’s out at her trysts with Ivor. Jane is easily the best character of the bunch; at once, you feel sorry for her and revulsion at the things she thinks and says. The real strength of the novel, however, lies in the psychological suspense, which kept me interested the whole way through.

    There are a couple of things that seemed anachronistic to me, however (would an unemployed woman with no money have owned a cell phone in the early 1990s?), and the ending is a bit predictable. And for people who aren’t really into politics, Vine does get a bit into the subject here. The Birthday Present isn’t quite as good as, say, House of Stairs, the or The Minotaur, but it comes very close.

  • Wormy Apple
    19:10 on September 1st, 2012
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    I do not think this is Barbara Vine/ Ruth Rendell’s best book, and I have read all of them. But I am giving this 5 stars, because even a flawed work from her is usually far better than most mystery suspense novels out there. This is no exception, and it is a fast-paced, suspense-filled story.

    Brief summary, no spoilers:

    The setting is London, in the early 1990s, just at the end of Margaret Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister. The story tells the tale of Ivor Tesham, a young member of Parliament who had ambitions to rise much higher. He is having an affair with a married woman, and decides to plan a “surprise” for her birthday.

    Needless to say, it goes wrong. And that starts a series of events that results in the destruction of many lives.

    One of the things I love about any Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell novel is that you know you are in for a page-turner, and this book is no exception. She is also the best author I’ve ever read in describing damaged, or eccentric characters, or those with obsessive compulsions, delusions, or mental defect of all sorts. And again, this novel doesn’t disappoint in that regard.

    So my problems with the story? Without giving away any spoilers – I was riveted throughout most of the story, and I thought that the sense of impending doom and disaster was palpable. It seemed like we were all set up for a spectacular finish – and indeed, this author has come up with some of the great finales and twists of all time.

    But not here, in my opinion. Saying this, I still recommend this book. It is a pager-turner, and has the great classic bizarre cast of Barbara Vine characters. If you are in any kind of a reading slump, this is as good as any of her books to get you going again.

    So, recommended. But if you’ve never read her before, I recommend starting with some of my favorites – like A Sight for Sore Eyes, Or Adam and Eve and Pinch Me under her real name, Ruth Rendell. Or Anna’s Book or No Night is Too Long under the Barbara Vine pseudonym.

  • Len Roe
    21:04 on September 1st, 2012
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    Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell) gets a lot of flak for writing thoughtful, reflective books. They aren’t typical mysteries or suspense thrillers — I suspect that was the author’s point in setting up a new byline. I’ve read nearly everything she’s published under this pseudonym and all of it’s good. The books move at a slowly deliberate pace with a lot of time for character development and a momentum that builds slowly as she lets each character reveal a little more and a little more. This one is particularly unique and original in the way it builds the central character and her relations with the others. There’s a risk of becoming self-consciously artsy but Vine never crosses that line — she just keeps on delivering good writing book after book. As a journalist and author myself, I admire what she does … I have often wished I could do it myself.

  • Pansy Hluska
    23:07 on September 1st, 2012
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    Ivor Tesham, an up-and-coming member of Parliament in London, is slowly and painfully undone by his affair with a married woman and their fondness for “adventure sex.” When he stages a mock kidnapping for her birthday present, things go horribly wrong, and Ivor’s first and continuing reaction is to keep his name and career out of the mess. Unfortunately, too many people know what really happened and of course fate will not allow Ivor to outrun his eventual ruin.

    This book is narrated by Ivor’s brother-in-law (a wonderfully sypmpathetic character) and Jane Atherton, who was the mistress’s alibi and who begins to keep a diary and scrapbook in which she reveals her obsession with the mistress’s bereft husband. Jane’s scribbling also reveals her own crazy, bumbling campaign to ruin Ivor.

    I thought the book moved a little slowly for a while, but it does pay off as events and twists reveal themselves all in good time. Vine (Ruth Rendell’s alter ego) loves to play with the darker aspects of personality, and this book is both dark and darkly humorous – a nice combination.

  • Jerry T
    1:04 on September 2nd, 2012
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    Of the dozen or so Barbara Vine novels, for me this falls right in the lower middle tier. Hardly the best, but certainly not the weakest (I would reserve “The Minotaur” for that, but even then it was more readable and witty than most of her competition) in the canon.
    The story, although absorbing, takes a while to get going, thanks due to the sometimes overly done descriptions of London and its architecture. But once it gets cranking and the folks are jumping from roof to roof, things gets interesting, particularly with the motley group of characters assembled for such a dangerous activity. They may not be a sympathetic one in the bunch, but some of their stories are darkly funny, and never less than absorbing.
    However somewhere past the middle a couple of members does something that takes the story to a different direction, closer to themes found in other Vine books. This sudden turn–from almost no plot for the first two thirds to action driven final third–may not convince everyone.
    True she could have discarded this last third and gone in another direction, but the final product is just as absorbing as anything she has written. Just not as fully convincing or as seamless as her best work.
    Although I certainly enjoyed the book (I read it two days), I would not recommended it for first time Barbara Vine readers. The best titles are: “A Dark Adapted Eye”, “A Fatal Inversion”, “The House of Stairs”, and “Anna’s Book”.

  • Charlie Frankel
    3:07 on September 2nd, 2012
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    A slick, up-and-coming Conservative MP, Ivor Tesham, contrives a kinky birthday present for his married lover, Hebe Furnal, and it all goes badly wrong. The woman ends up dead, an apparent kidnapping victim. One of the “perpetrators” also dies and the third languishes in a coma.

    This latest psychological thriller from Vine (aka Ruth Rendell) begins dark and grows inevitably darker. It’s told in two voices, Ivor’s brother-in-law Rob, a dedicated family man, and plain Jane, glamorous Hebe’s embittered spinster friend and alibi.

    Naturally Ivor hopes to cover things up and succeeds too. But he can’t quite leave well enough alone. And there’s Jane, of course, who knows all about him. Not that she’s interested in blackmail or revenge. All she really wants is to be the next Mrs. Furnal.

    We’re told from the start that things don’t end well for Ivor, not that there would be much doubt. It’s the journey that’s so riveting. Vine takes us there through character and class, expectations and ambitions, hopes and disappointments.

    There are no evil people in this one, just plenty of selfishness, half-baked guile and self-destructive haplessness. Vine winds her way through the human psyche serving up surprises and inevitabilities with spellbinding precision. A page-turner to savor.

  • MoneyPerk
    4:14 on September 2nd, 2012
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    In its simplest terms, the newest book by Ruth Rendell, writing under the pen name of perhaps her darker side, Barbara Vine, is a tale of the rise and fall of a British politician, Ivor Tesham, 33 years old as the story opens. An MP at 31, two years later he was made a Minister of the Crown, Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Defence “and set the holder of the office on the first rung of the ladder of political achievement. With luck and hard work, he would next be made a whip and then junior minister.” It is a tale of “the unforeseen and how we walk all the time on that thin crust that covers terrible abysses.”

    The first three chapters are told from the pov of Ivor’s brother-in-law, Rob Delgado, from some time in the year 2007, reflecting back on a period in 1990. The reader is told of an affair Ivor is having with a 27-year-old woman with whom he is besotted, or perhaps just in lust. The problem is that the woman is married and living with her husband, and has a small child. Ivor is planning the eponymous present – well, actually, one of two presents, one a more mundane but very expensive and plot-significant set of pearls, the other very much in keeping with the pair’s somewhat kinky and fetishistic appetites and having to do with a hired car, a borrowed house, and two men paid to help in a scenario of a staged kidnapping.

    The plans go horribly awry when there is a crash, and the woman and one of the men is killed, the other man badly and nearly critically injured. Ivor fears that in the aftermath he will be exposed for what he is: “An MP, a respectable man, a rich man on his way to getting richer, who had set in motion a train of reprehensible events that he very much wanted to keep secret.” After the first few chapters the pov switches to that of the woman referred to as “the alibi lady,” and for the most part alternates between these narrators. There are issues of mistaken identity, IRA violence, and the mad thoughts of a lonely, friendless woman.

    Scandals involving British politicians are ever more real and prevalent, and the immediacy of that issue makes the plot a particularly timely one. This is a novel of psychological suspense as good as anything “Barbara Vine” has previously delivered, and is recommended.

  • Mango Fleurs
    6:12 on September 2nd, 2012
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    Barbara Vine is one of my favourite authors, but this book left me flat. I loved the basic plot line – totally intriguing (if a little far-fetched). The characters were, as always with Vine, well drawn and kept me turning pages.

    But Vine made an error that, for a less well-known author, would have been edited out by a competent editor, and I wonder if this book is a case of an editor being too afraid to touch the work of one of publishing’s ‘greats’.

    Vine constantly (and by that I mean every two pages at one point) prefigures what is going to happen. It isn’t subtle. It isn’t delivery of red-herrings. She tells you, over and over, what is going to happen next. Typically in a crude, wooden, first-time author delivery of “Little did I know that in two days time the cat would be dead/I would be tossed out of my apartment/the police would come and haul Jonny away/the moon would crash into the Pacific”. I became increasingly irritated by these give-aways which completely ruined the plot tension because it soon became apparent that these were not red herrings, but Vine was actually telling you what was going to happen. The moon always crashed into the Pacific on time, and the cat was run over and Jonny hauled away by the police.

    Vine is an experienced author – what did she think she was doing? Or should I be moaning at the editor, too scared to tell Vine that these ruined the tension?

    I did like the plot, it was intriguing, but it was also a little unbelievable and I think both Vine and the editorial staff could have worked a little harder on that.

    So, a little disappointing Ms Vine. A bit sloppy.

    As a side note to the publisher – I read this in the ebook version and whosoever among your junior staff you asked to proof the book in its ebook form should be sacked. Many, many typos, lower case letters to start sentences, lack of dialogue quote marks etc.

  • Robb.
    7:30 on September 2nd, 2012
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    Wow! Claustrophobia indeed! Whether she is writing as Barbara Vine or Ruth Rendell she is always tops. Grasshopper is no exception . Murder, mayhem, psychologically damaged people, interior monologues, taut writing and marvelous plotting keep the reader in her thrall. This time phobias are at the heart and having a couple myself added to the excitement. Always a pleasure!

  • Bob Rutledge
    9:51 on September 2nd, 2012
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    If you are a fan of Ruth Rendell’s writing as Ruth Rendell and not just as Barbara Vine, I think you will enjoy this book. I found it to a highly readable and entertaining mystery. I finished it in one long day of reading. The book is more in line with Rendell’s novels such as A Sight for Sore Eyes or The Tree of Hands. Briefly, the story is about a high-ranking Member of Parliament who is having an extramarital affair with a married woman and the ensuing consequences of the affair. The plot does not have the complexity or gradual development of Vine’s best books. Other reviewers have also mentioned that this novel has unlikable protagonists. My question to them is since when did Rendell create completely likable characters (other than Inspector Wexford, of course!) Writing as Rendell or Vine, her books are explorations of the darker, quirkier sides of seemingly ordinary people. While this is by no means her best work under either name, it is still a very good read, indeed.

  • Silly
    11:35 on September 2nd, 2012
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    I’m not quite sure what to say about this one. I found that contrary to most of her books, this one is a lot slower paced. That does detract a bit from the story, but Ms. Vine’s (Rendell’s) writing is so superior that she still manages to carry this one off. In a way it was similar to “King Solomon’s Carpet”, although that one was about the English underground and this one is about the world of London on the roofs. They were similar because both showed a certain aspect of London life and both give the reader clear pictures of London’s topography and architecture. There is probably a whole subculture that have explored London by roof climbing. The book is not really a mystery, but it is a psychological thriller that explores with such realism the minds of young Londoners. The book is really about child abduction, and the lives that this act touches and changes. It is like a ripple effect since so many people can be stakeholders in a child’s life. It’s complicated and Ms. Vine portrays the recriminations and sad outcome so very well. She is a consumate storyteller, and this book does not disappoint.

  • Jose in Miami
    12:28 on September 2nd, 2012
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    This book was disappointing, as was The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy. The first Vine books were so gripping, so disorienting that I raced through to the end. Not this one. Besides, she’s repeating herself. This reminded me too much of King Solomon’s Carpet with its endless riding around on the Tube. Vine’s brilliant descriptions and knowledge of London were the only reasons I kept going. The mushy ending was really hard to take, particularly in comparison with some of her earlier twist endings. Snap out of it, Barbara

  • jasona
    12:59 on September 2nd, 2012
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    I will save you some time and just say that I picked up this book to read and yada yada yada it’s not good.

    Rendell/Vine is a superb writer but she used twice as many words here to tell this story than necessary. This book would have been better as a short story in a collection. Seems she wanted to interject a lot of British politics and this was just the venue to do it.

    Read this book? Don’t bother unless you need something late at night to put you to sleep.

  • Lynn VanDyke
    13:58 on September 2nd, 2012
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    I actually read this book in September 08, and have been waiting to be able to post my review. Anyway, here it is. Ms. Rendell’s reputation as “The best mystery writer in the English-speaking world” is truly deserved. Whether she is writing as herself, or whether she is writing one of her truly wonderful psychological thrillers as Barbara Vine such as this one, she does an absolutely wonderful job of it. This book reverts back to the 1990′s in England. It is a time when England is dealing with IRA bombings and the first Gulf War. The unsettled atmosphere of this era is reproduced in the characters of Ms. Rendell’s book. We meet some truly strange people between these covers, but that does not make them less real. The story is about the very public downfall of well-known politician, and all the sleaze and hypocrisy that goes along with these stories as we read about the true-life ones in the tabloids. I found the book totally compelling.

  • Liam McCauley
    15:39 on September 2nd, 2012
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    I’ve been a fan of Barbara Vine for years, ordering her books from so I can get them as soon as they come out rather than waiting until they’re released in the U.S. For some reason, I didn’t on “The Birthday Present,” and I am glad.

    Usually Vine writes multi-layered, multi-faceted intense psychological narratives that take place in one time but explore a past history. Her protagonists are flawed, often deeply, but the reader cannot help either liking them or at least being sympathetic towards them. Not in this novel. For one thing, the chapters shift back and forth between the narrative of Rob Delgado, an amoral, spineless observer, and the diary of Jane, an increasingly-disturbed young woman. However, there is nothing to mark (other than chapter breaks) that the narrators are switching back and forth so it takes several sentences of each chapter to figure out who is talking. How hard would it have been to add a label “excerpt from Jane’s diary” to her portions? In addition, the main character, Ivor, is despicable. How this unfaithful, caddish, shallow snob can get women to love him so deeply is an inexplicable mystery. He does not have one redeemable quality.

    In previous Vine books, the suspense builds to a very satisfying denouement–again, not in this book. She reveals her hand basically at the beginning of the book, and that’s all there is. I enjoy the Ruth Rendell/Wexford novels, but the Ruth Rendell standalones often leave me cold. That is what this Barbara Vine novel reminded me of–particularly the point of view told from an extremely unreliable narrator. It’s disappointing that for a number of reviewers here, this was their first Vine novel. I highly recommend many of her previous offerings: A Dark-Adapted Eye (perfection!), House of Stairs, The Brimstone Wedding, The Blood Doctor, The Minotaur, or Anna’s Book. Try any of those, and you’ll have a much more satisfactory Barbara Vine experience than “The Birthday Present.”

  • john bridge
    16:29 on September 2nd, 2012
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    This book begins as we expect a Rendell/Vine book to begin: with a character whose phobia or neurosis (in this case, claustrophobia), drives succeeding events. Probably the best of this type is Rendell’s “Judgement in Stone.” But the narrator isn’t the ONLY loonie: there’s a whole collection of them in one building (as in “King Solomon’s Carpet” which was a MUCH better book). As another reviewer noted, the constant hopping back and forth in time and the frequent foreshadowing become annoying after awhile. Reliance on HUGE coincidences, and a ho-hum ending (which the narrator even admits everyone probably saw coming) also makes the plot less than Vine’s best.

  • davidrusso
    18:33 on September 2nd, 2012
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    This novel really transcends the mystery genre. Being my first B. Vine read, and also not knowing that she was Ruth Rendell, I was very pleasantly surprised to find that this involving novel was much more than just a who-done-it. Although it is long, and the developing plot begins to stretch so far you feel it may snap (very much like the recent “The Little Friend” by Donna Tartt), I found it to be a real page turner. Much more interested in character development than in conventional mystery elements, the book is suspenseful in the same way that a good novel with the weight of impending tragedy is suspenseful — I thought that Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” was one of the most nail-biting books I’ve ever read — and I ended the last 100 pages at breakneck pace. Vine continually promises to provide a life-changing climax over and over again throughout the book and because her writing is so superior you believe her. Many plots and damaged characters knock against each other for 400 pages and if the ending isn’t as satisfying as the journey, I do recommend this book for lovers of good fiction, although not for the avid mystery reader.

  • Cloomer
    19:27 on September 2nd, 2012
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    Reading the other reviews, I would have to agree with most of what was said. I, too, love Barbara Vine and loved this book. The most well-drawn character, to me, was the “Alibi Lady.” I kept envisioning a woman who looks exactly like the British lady who sings so amazingly well. In addition, I would have to agree with a couple of criticisms of this novel. I, too, found that in the first couple of chapters there were way too many people who were introduced with no explanation whatsoever of who they were. Evidentually I overcame this by simple ignoring the unnecessary characters that were impossible to keep track of. Also, I didn’t find all that many unexpected “twist and turns” in the plot mentioned by someone. The ending was a bit of a let down for me. All and all, still well worth the read. If you wrote as many books as Ruth Rendall/Barbara Vine, you’d have trouble making each one perfect, too. She’s simple amazing.

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