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The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise: A Novel Kindle Edition
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 erotica; 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 interesting. 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 delightful 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 original novel whose irresistible characters will stay with you long after you turn the stunning last page.
Praise for THE TOWER, THE ZOO, AND THE TORTOISE:
“The Tower of London’s the center of this hilarious love story about Beefeater Balthazar, his wife, their tortoise and their eccentric friends. As Balthazar struggles to save his marriage, the rest of the cast carries on in a charming tangle, and when Balthazar is put in charge of a Tower zoo, hilarity breaks out. Sprinkled with fascinating Tower lore, the book will steal your heart.”
--People Magazine, 4 out of 4 stars
“Charming, witty, and heartfelt, Stuart's second novel is even more delightful than her debut, The Matchmaker of Périgord. A perfect suggestion for fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society; highly recommended.”
"History buffs, animal lovers, and simply the tenderhearted will swoon over this captivating story."
--Entertainment Weekly, grade A
"The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise is the perfect summer confection — feather-light without being feather-brained. Julia Stuart has penned a work that is original and every-page amusing, and she's peopled it with characters that move into your heart."
-- The Denver Post
“[The] delightfully zany and touching novel, The Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise, by British writer Julia Stuart, has jumped the queue to take readers on a fictional romp through the Tower’s realm…With her deft and charming style, Stuart brings this comic story to a satisfying and heartwarming end.”
– The Washington Post
“Julia Stuart spins a confection of whimsy in The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise.”
–Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Julia Stuart's sweet The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise is a blessing, undisguised and undeniable, and apparent from ...
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
- ASIN : B003F3FJI2
- Publisher : Anchor (August 10, 2010)
- Publication date : August 10, 2010
- Language : English
- File size : 1905 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Sticky notes : On Kindle Scribe
- Print length : 322 pages
- Best Sellers Rank: #687,312 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
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Still, "The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise" does a remarkable job of handling that material without bogging down into soap opera territory. This brings us back to that English eccentricity; I wonder if such a story could be set anywhere other than England and still retain that lightness of touch. With all due respect, for instance, how serious can a story possibly be when so many of the main characters dress in that outfit? It looks like some designer got a job in a clown-costume factory and couldn't quite remember where to put the accordion pleats. (Just take a look at the nearest bottle of Beefeater gin if you're not sure what I'm talking about - that's the dress uniform, but the daily uniform looks like a sort of depressed version of the same getup.)
Besides the clothing, the story also includes a clergyman who writes romance novels in his spare time, the man who spends his days taking care of the Tower's collection of ravens, the lost-and-found's other employee who alleviates her boredom by trying on the false beards people have left on the trains, and a few dozen other oddballs. Then you take another look and realize that they're all, without exception, looking for love. That's a nice touch from the author, who presents us with a genuinely loving couple in crisis as her main characters.
At which point we learn that the Queen has decided to restart an ancient tradition by moving all her exotic animals - the ones that foreign leaders have presented to her - from London Zoo to the Tower. She wants to have the Beefeaters set up a menagerie on the Tower grounds, like the one that used to be there in previous centuries. And on top of all his other problems, who gets to take care of these animals and birds? Balthazar, that's who. Well, a man needs a hobby.
If there's a weakness to this novel it's that from this point onward, the outcome is pretty much of a foregone conclusion. Just about all the characters are people of good will, and we all know what happens to people of good will in a romantic comedy, no matter how many obstacles they have to get through. This is a quirky, touching, sometimes moving romantic comedy - there's a child's death involved, for goodness' sake - but a romantic comedy nonetheless.
The author intelligently loaded in some structural weight to balance the lightness of her materials. Most noticeably, everyone in this story has some connection to the Tower of London, and that shared background provides the characters with some dimension, some life outside of the romance machinery. They didn't just drift into this story by coincidence; they were there already. A romance, like any fiction, is an artifice, but things like the common setting make this one seem more natural.
Another structural stroke that lends this confection some weight is Hebe's activities on behalf of the London subway's lost-and-found. She and her colleague don't just collect lost objects and take advantage of them - reading the books and diaries, trying on the clothes, trying to open the safe - they also look for the owners and return the things. Some of the people they encounter in this endeavor have stories of their own to tell and contributions of their own to make. They even have something to say about what's happened to Balthazar and Hebe.
Still, although this novel is more than a piece of cotton candy, it remains a romantic comedy. On the other hand, "Pride and Prejudice" is also a romantic comedy. What makes that one great, and this one good?
In the end, of course, you'll have to figure that out for yourself - there may even be those among you who think that "The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise" is great and "Pride and Prejudice" good, although if that's your opinion you and I are going to have to discuss sports or television shows rather than literature when we meet. My sense is that the respective quality of this novel and others has to do with a couple of things, plausibility and imagination.
Ms. Stuart has done a very fine job in this work, but no one really lives like her characters - even, I suspect, the real Yeoman Warders of the Tower. The greatest danger they face is sadness; painful but bearable. The characters in "Pride and Prejudice" face the real possibility of homelessness. Those in "Tom Jones" face public humiliation or domestic violence. Those in "Catch-22" face actual death. All very funny, partly because the stakes are so high. As has been said before, when someone in a silent movie slips on a banana peel, it's funny because you can't see the bruises, but you know the bruises are there. This novel doesn't quite reach that level.
But let's not take that whole business too seriously. All it really means is that "The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise" isn't a classic. Not yet, anyway - only time will tell. Meanwhile, this novel is very funny, often moving, and in the end triumphant. Wait until you learn, in the last line, what that tortoise accomplishes.
Benshlomo says, If it bends, it's funny - if it breaks, it's not.
Take away the aspects of the title – Tower, zoo, and tortoise – from the story and one is left with four relationship/love vignettes - stories as old as time. The first is the story of Balthazar and Hebe Jones – two people who are still very much in love after years of marriage, but who are dealing with a tragic loss of their only child Milo in different ways, and who now have difficulty communicating to each other. Hebe has the sense that Balthazar has recovered from the grief (he has never really cried) and in fact perhaps never loved their son very deeply because all he cares about is catching rain drops in perfume bottles. Hebe has become cold to Balthazar and he is unable to communicate with her. The second relationship story is that of Rev. Septimus Drew and Ruby Dore – a long-time bachelor reverend who writes erotica under a pen name and tries to stop rats from overtaking and destroying his chapel and a lovely barmaid at the Tower’s Rack & Ruin who finds she is pregnant by a one-night stand. Until near the end of the book, this is a story of unrequited love as Drew pines for Ruby without her realizing how much he cares for her. The third love story is of Valerie Jennings and Arthur Catnip – she a goofy colleague of Hebe’s at London’s Underground Lost Property Office and Catnip a ticket inspector. These two deal with their inferiority complexes – Valerie with her weight issue and eccentricities and Arthur with his “limited height”. The fourth relationship story is centered on the Ravenmaster, his various lovers, and his wife. Each of these stories is a slice of real life and has been written in fiction many times. However, Stuart handles the interweaving of the story lines through the uniqueness of the location and the absurdity of some of the characters, their actions, and situations. I think this is a hallmark of British humor. Think of Monty Python or A Fish Called Wanda.
But I do not think Stuart uses these methods just to bring in whimsy, comic relief, or ridiculousness, though that is part of her reasoning. I sense she is trying to use symbolism and say something about life. For example, Balthazar can’t stop his obsession with collecting some rain drops in special perfume bottles until he actually sheds real tear drops for the loss of his son. Hebe can’t move on and forgive her husband until she finds someone (Tom Cotton) with whom she can talk about Milo’s death and until she can return the lost ashes in an urn to a loved one. Note that Stuart purposely has Hebe working at the “Underground Lost Property Office” because Hebe is a lost soul herself who feels some comfort laying in a magician’s box (not unlike a coffin). Then of course there is the “zoo” – the albatross that mates for life, but that has been taken away from its mate – not unlike Balthazar or Rev. Drew who both suffer and pine for the respective woman they love. There is also the female love bird that savaged its mate – not unlike the animosity of the Ravenmaster and his wife.
I’m sure if I kept thinking about it, there are many other reasons why Stuart included certain characters (such as the ghost of Sir Walter Raleigh) or animals, such as the parrot, the ravens, and of course, the tortoise, and why Stuart placed characters in certain situations. I don’t think her choices were strictly for the goofiness or the laughs. The reviewer mentioned earlier did not feel the same note of hope at the end that she felt after reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book to which The Tower is often compared, but I disagree with that criticism. I thought Stuart left us with a great deal of hope – Hebe and Balthazar reunite, Rev. Drew and Ruby Dore and Valerie and Arthur begin or continue their respective relationships, both the ravens and the Ravenmaster get their punishment, and the animals are brought back to their habitats at the zoo. And of course, the longest-living tortoise, missing throughout much of the book, triumphantly returns.
Balthazar Jones is not a very successful Beefeater; he is consistently criticized by his boss for his lack of vigilance to pickpockets at the Tower of London. He is somehow selected by the Queen of England's staff to be in charge of a new zoo at the Tower, populated by the unusual animals the Queen has received from various heads of state. While the zoo brings both comfort and anxiety to Balthazar, it highlights the challenges he and his wife, Hebe, have experienced since the sudden death of their son, and the animals also serve as a catalyst in the lives of many other Tower residents.
The book is full of situations that arise because people aren't communicating clearly with one another. Hebe thinks Balthazar no longer grieves for their son since he doesn't talk about it; the Tower chaplain is in love with the owner of a bar but is afraid to express his love for her; Balthazar is struck by the guilt he feels about his son's death; and the Tower's Ravenmaster resents the lack of respect his birds get, especially with the arrival of the zoo. Needless to say, dealing with people who can't or won't communicate with one another is a little frustrating, so at times I wished the characters would just tell each other what they were feeling. But the book's ending was satisfying and heartwarming, so a little frustration was worth it. While this story didn't wow me, it was a simple, straightforward, enjoyable little book.
Top reviews from other countries
The story involves an improbable cast of characters (the inhabitants of the Tower of London) most of whom are emotionally stuck. The central characters are a couple struggling to come to terms with the tragic loss of their only son. Weaved around the central story are this separate threads of the secondary characters which include the vicar of the Tower's chapel, the landlady of the Tower's pub, a tattoed ticket inspector and a work colleague at the London Underground Lost Property office, all of whom are searching for love in their lonely lives.
The novel is written in a feather light and humorous style. The author's choice of the improbable setting of the Tower of London and the plot device of the introduction of a menagerie are strokes of genius that provide the perfect backdrop for the chief protagonist, Balthazar Jones, to act out his grief as he marches the battlements in the dead of night and display his humanity in his generous treatment of his animal charges. Similarly his wife, Hebe's, job at the London Underground Lost Property office offers her the perfect tonic to her own troubles as against all odds she successfully reunites people with their long lost treasures.
This book had me smiling, chuckling and laughing out loud all the way through until the final two pages when I cried my eyes out. A wonderful shot of whimsical joy in these troubled times!