Friday, October 8, 2010

Review: The Tower, The Zoo and the Tortoise

Author: Julia Stuart
Publisher/Format:New York : Doubleday, 2010.
Characters: Balthazar and Hebe Jones; Mrs.Cook the tortoise
Subject: life in the Tower of London; dealing with grief
Setting: London
Genre: fiction/ humor
Source: Review copy from publisher

Reviewers have called this book quirky and humorous.  It is.  It also is sad and poignant  with a host of characters dealing with life's emotions: love, grief, rejection, fear, anger, nostalgia, longing, and self-esteem. It is a precocious story telling how ordinary people go about their lives in unusual circumstances and manage to stay human.  There is a decidedly British slant told with the typical dry British sense of humor.

Balthazar Jones, Beefeater extraordinaire, lives in the Tower of London with his wife Hebe who works for the London Underground Lost Property Office.  Together they are struggling to come to grips with the death of their only son Milo over three years ago.  The marriage is crumbling around them.  Beefeater Jones is suddenly handed the job of keeper of Her Majesty's menagerie when the Zoo decides to move animals the queen has received as gifts and house them in the Tower.  Since Balthazar owns the oldest living tortoise in captivity (Mrs. Cook is 130 years old), he seems the perfect person to put in charge. In the meantime, Hebe is busy trying to locate the owners of a left-behind box of cremains, a plastic blow-up doll, a viking helmet, a large safe that has been there for over 4 years and which no one has managed to open, and a vast assortment of other paraphernalia that make the scenes in this office read almost like a Monty Python show.

There's the Tower Chaplain, Septimus Drew, who desperately wants to be a published writer, but who has received more rejection slips than the Tower has Ravens and who devises a rather deviant way to gain publication; add in the barmaid who has a secret (no spoilers here)  the ghost of Sir Walter Raleigh,  the Raven Master, and the Yeoman Gaoler and you have the makings of hours of belly laughs.  The battle for supremacy amongst the animals, along with Balthazar and Hebe's intense personal troubles all come to a reasonable resolution at the end.

I loved this book and only wish the editing had been a bit tighter.  There were several times when I found descriptive phrases repeated, and extra details inserted, serving to make me grit my teeth and say "didn't he already say that?"  Hopefully, the final edit will clean up those nits.

All in all, it's a definitely good, funny, feel-good read with a hefty dollop of Tower history to add to its overall  appeal.  I also listened to parts of  the audio version which was delightfully read by Jonathan Cowley.  Whichever format is your choice, I suspect you will be delighted.

Don't forget Doubleday-Random House has made two copies of this available for giveaway.  There's still time to enter here:  the deadline is noon EDT October 14th.


  1. This book sounds very funny. I think it's cool that the tower guards get to live in apartments in the complex. Now that's living history.

    BTW, now I know where my husband got his favorite saying - it's an approximation of your quote of the day.

  2. I started this..but am taking a little break from it at the moment before I finsih it. Not sure why...but so far it has not grabbed me.

  3. Hope this is the spot to enter the giveaway.



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