Review: The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise by Julia Stuart

I had seen the book The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise by Julia Stuart at bookstores and was intrigued by both the title and the book cover, so simple by catching nevertheless.

The summary sounded interesting and above all, it sounded funny–finally light reading! At long last I finally picked up the book, welcoming the change in literary matter.

I did not read this book for any challenge, I simply just needed a break and to read something random, new, and relaxing and I was not disappointed. Not many books really make me laugh out loud but there were many parts of this book where I found myself in hear hysterics…especially at the beginning.

I had read mixed reviews about the book and was a little hesitant to start it, fearing it would not meet expectations but it was truly entertaining. One of the things I liked best about the book was the absurd characters and plot…..not to mention the voice/tone of the novel–very dry, witty, and intelligent humor….characteristically British! 

The story takes place in modern day England and follows the lives of a Beefeater and his wife who live at the Tower of London. Along with a many other random secondary characters such as the family’s pet turtle, the Tower Chaplain, a barmaid who works at the Rack and Ruin bar,  and the Raven-Master who all live at the Tower also. Balthazar Jones and his wife Hebe Jones are struggling with the death of their young eleven year old son (I know, I know parts are a little heavy but the humor helps I promise) and living at the Tower does nothing to improve the their state of grief or their marriage.

Jones is a Beefeater at the Tower and more or less spends his day giving tours and walking around like a zombie while his wife, Hebe, works at the London Underground Lost Property Office  searching for the owners of lost or forgotten treasures left  behind on the vast Tube network. Jones is approached by an agent for the Queen to supervise a special exhibit: a royal menagerie at the Tower. He is selected because he is owner of the worlds oldest turtle, Mrs. Cook, who is a wandering resident of the Tower. The agent thinks Jones will be perfect and he listlessly agrees to supervise the royal zoo but in his haze he fails to see what that REALLY means. Suddenly animals start showing up at the Tower and he’s got to figure out what to do with them all. Somehow through the animals and throughout the story he finds purpose in his life again as do many of the other Tower inhabitants.

Here is the more official summary from Shelfari for those of you who are curious:

Brimming with charm and whimsy, this exquisite novel set in the Tower of London has the transportive qualities and delightful magic of the contemporary classics Chocolat and Amélie . Balthazar Jones has lived in the Tower of London with his loving wife, Hebe, and his 120-year-old pet tortoise for the past eight years. That’s right, he is a Beefeater (they really do live there). It’s no easy job living and working in the tourist attraction in present-day London. Among the eccentric characters who call the Tower’s maze of ancient buildings and spiral staircases home are the Tower’s Rack & Ruin barmaid, Ruby Dore, who just found out she’s pregnant; portly Valerie Jennings, who is falling for ticket inspector Arthur Catnip; the lifelong bachelor Reverend Septimus Drew, who secretly pens a series of principled erot ica; and the philandering Ravenmaster, aiming to avenge the death of one of his insufferable ravens. When Balthazar is tasked with setting up an elaborate menagerie within the Tower walls to house the many exotic animals gifted to the Queen, life at the Tower gets all the more interest ing. Penguins escape, giraffes are stolen, and the Komodo dragon sends innocent people running for their lives. Balthazar is in charge and things are not exactly running smoothly. Then Hebe decides to leave him and his beloved tortoise “runs” away. Filled with the humor and heart that calls to mind the delight ful novels of Alexander McCall Smith, and the charm and beauty of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society , The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise is a magical, wholly origi nal novel whose irresistible characters will stay with you long after you turn the stunning last page.

I loved the absolutely absurd and odd characters and circumstances surrounding the story….they were so far fetched but so believable.

I love how Stuart paired the random but yet dignified job of Balthazar Jones (royal Beefeater) with the curiously normal job of his wife, Hebe. Not every reader can relate to being a Beefeater but many can relate and find humor in his wife’s job.

Hebe works at the London Underground Lost Property Office with her friend Valerie. It is just the two of them there and through the story we get to know about some of the lost treasures at their office. I am always amazed at things people lug around with them….for instance, my mom carries this ridiculously large tote bag around with her everywhere and I swear it is home to a every beauty supply known to man, all kinds of snack items, a pharmacy which can cure every ailment, and couple of books all in one! I have never seen so much crap in my life! The strangest thing I have my purse–clear nail-polish for pantyhose emergencies. So needless to say I loved Hebe’s job and thought it was HYSTERICAL!

What’s even better is that I can totally see how one could lost something on the Tube….a life sized blow up doll, a canoe, fishing wader boots, a magicians box for the ‘cut my assistant in half’ trick, and my most favorite item…..the urn containing the remains of some lost (in every sense of the word) loved one. Who takes all that crap on the Tube?!?!?! I struggled with just the luggage, how would one fit a canoe on the Tube without some fellow commuter killing them?!?!!?!

At any rate the characters were full or weird paradoxes and idiosyncrasies which couldn’t help but kept me interested in the story. I also loved how Stuart added in all the history of the Tower….honestly I learned more about the Tower from this book that I did during both of my trips to the Tower in person.

Stuart has clearly done lots of research on not just the Tower but also the zoological history of the royal menagerie and the royal animals in the Queens private ‘collection’. I loved how she incorporated all kinds of exotic animals and birds….some being downright ridiculous such as the fickle and nervous Etruscan Shrew that if traumatized might just curl up and die. All the characters in the book in some way identify with some of the more odd animals.

One thing that is important to note about this book, though it has serious content, the seriousness is not discounted or lessened by the humor. It is often hard to mix humor and tragedy (such as losing a child) without it coming off as insensitive or heartless but Stuart does not take anything away from the humor. The book is not over come by the drama of Milo and his parents grief and it is not over come by the odd comedy of errors each stand independent of each other. The outcome of mixing these two styles is often ‘hit or miss’ but Stuart does a fantastic job merging both and writing a book that satisfies both expectations of tragedy and comedy that reads hope for with turning off her reader.

The only reason I gave the book three out of five stars….it was interesting and engaging….well written, funny, real, and historically thrilling with a cast of unforgettable, odd characters but for me the ending wanted still and was too fast. At times the novel was a little on the wordy side….though many books I have read by other British authors incorporate this tactic in their writing….and I am clearly not one to preach the ‘less is more’ in writing theory, but still….. it is hard for me to get use to the wordy prose and it is at times distracting for me.

If you are looking for a quick, fun read full of odd-ness, humor, and British wit mixed with some serious content pick up this book, you will NOT be disappointed. Though the wordy-ness is difficult to get use to and the ending leaves something to be desired overall it’s a great book and should not be left in the endless pile of ‘to be read’ books that we all have lying around. Dig it out and start reading 🙂

Challenge/Book Summary:

Book: The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise by Julia Stuart

  • Kindle Edition
  • Published (first published August 10th 2010)
  • ASIN B003F3FJI2

This book counts toward: NA

  • Hosted by: NA
  • Books for Challenge Completed: NA

Recommendation: 3 out of 5

Genre: Contempo lit, Literature, Fiction

Memorable lines/quotes: NA

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