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The tower, the zoo, and the tortoise (edition 2010)

by Julia Stuart

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
79110511,615 (3.74)90
Member:sjmccreary
Title:The tower, the zoo, and the tortoise
Authors:Julia Stuart
Info:New York : Doubleday, 2010.
Collections:Your library, To read, Owned books
Rating:
Tags:tututhefirst, fiction, humorous, London

Work details

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

  1. 80
    The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (bpompon)
  2. 71
    The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer (teelgee)
    teelgee: Whimsy, lightheartedness and quirkiness combined nicely with seriousness and poignancy.
  3. 40
    Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson (teelgee)
  4. 10
    A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson (janetteG)
    janetteG: Touching and quirky - but not too quirky - story about older people finding love and bird watching in East Africa.
  5. 00
    The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Alliebadger)
    Alliebadger: Both uniquely British reflections on a unique life lived.
  6. 00
    The Matchmaker of Périgord by Julia Stuart (LBV123)
  7. 00
    Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant (LBV123)
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» See also 90 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 106 (next | show all)
I got to the chapter break just before page 50 and put it down. Such unpleasant people - I do not want to read about them. I thought they were going to be quirky in a charming way. If they are later, sorry.
  Cheryl_in_CC_NV | Jun 5, 2016 |
I really enjoyed reading this book. It was a light read, though the subject matter wasn't always light. I just loved the snippets of history about the Tower of London and British history and it is the first book in a long time to make me laugh out loud. ( )
  Electablue | Apr 20, 2016 |
Entertaining! ( )
  cygnet81 | Jan 17, 2016 |
3.5***

Yeoman Warder Balthazar Jones and his wife have lived in the Tower of London since he took the post as a Beefeater some eight years ago. His hobby is collecting rain samples, which he keeps in Egyptian perfume bottles in a case designed for that purpose. Hebe Jones works as a clerk for the London Underground Lost Property Office, where she tries to reunite patrons with their lost items. Their only pet is an ancient tortoise, Mrs Cook; in fact she is the oldest tortoise in the world. When Her Majesty decides that the Tower Menagerie should be reinstated to house the animals given to her as gifts, Balthazar is named the zookeeper on the premise that if he’s kept Mrs Cook alive and well all these years, then he can surely handle Her Majesty’s animals.

The central story revolves around Balthazar and Hebe, and their struggle to cope with the loss of their son. Stuart lets the reader get to know these two wounded souls by watching them at work. Balthazar’s adventures with the menagerie constantly remind him of his son and his marriage. Hebe’s work trying to find the owner of recovered cremation urn and helping a local courier recover the ice chest with a donated organ brings out her compassion and introduces her to people suffering losses every bit as heart-wrenching as hers. Interspersed with their stories we have tidbits of Tower factoids, a reverend with a secret secular life, a randy Ravenmaster, tourists behaving badly, a developing love interests between more than one couple, and an escape-artist tortoise bent on revenge.

The result is a quirky love story, a mini-lesson in history, and a whimsical social commentary all rolled into one. Some of the scenarios were a little too over-the-top, but I was interested from beginning to end and enjoyed it overall.
( )
  BookConcierge | Jan 13, 2016 |
There is real possibility for a great comic novel to be written about daily life in the contemporary Tower of London, but this was not it. The characters are paper-thin and the plot, such as it is, is both episodic and tiresome. I am easily sickened by excessive cutesiness and this book was like a giant banoffee pie of cutesiness. ( )
  sansmerci | Jul 2, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 106 (next | show all)
The ancient and sinister Tower of London that lures more than 2 million visitors a year would be an inspiration for any writer, especially one with the kind of whimsical imagination from which sprouts a world of ravenous ravens and a 181-year old tortoise called Mrs. Cross whose tail has been replaced by a parsnip.

Not to mention a Beefeater who collects exotic rain, patronizes a tower tavern called The Rack and Ruin and the ghost of Sir Walter Raleigh, who pollutes the place by his nightly smoking.

Ms. Stuart has concocted a marvelous confection of a book in which she writes of a unique cast of characters. The occupants of the royal menagerie, established in the tower in the 13th century, range from a royal polar bear that fished for salmon in the Thames to a golden snub-nosed monkey with titian hair christened the duchess of York.

What could have been heavy-handed whimsy has in this writer’s hands become a charming spoof that portrays the life and rather tragic times of Balthazar Jones, overseer of the tower’s royal menagerie and a man whose living quarters, while historic, provide evidence of just how uncomfortably damp life could be in the good old days.

Jones, weighed down by grief over the death of his young son and his failing marriage to Hebe Jones, is a member of that exclusive group known as Beefeaters who are the official guardians of the tower. In the 16th and 17th centuries these yeoman warders, as they were known, not only guarded royal prisoners but sometimes had the task of torturing them.

Jones’ duties are less onerous, but he is less than enthusiastic to hear that his responsibilities have been expanded to include managing a new royal menagerie of the animals given to the monarch as gifts to be moved on the queen’s orders from the London zoo to the tower. The queen, it is explained,considers it rude to return gifts, however unlikely.

A palace equerry sips tea and nibbles scones supposedly handmade by her majesty while describing to Jones the kind of animals he will be caring for. While emphasizing the seven centuries of tradition of a royal menagerie at the tower, the man from the palace notes that her majesty is “rather partial to tortoises” and is aware that Jones is already in possession of the venerable Mrs. Cross. Left unmentioned is the fact that the voracious ravens of the tower, which favor blood-soaked bread in their diet, had chewed off Mrs. Cross’ tail.

Jones’ late son had come up with the ingenious idea of implanting a parsnip where it showed and nobody seemed to notice, perhaps with the exception of Mrs. Cross. According to the emissary, due to be included in the new menagerie are toucans from the president of Peru, a zorilla which is a “highly revered yet uniquely odorous skunklike animal from Africa,” marmosets from Brazil, flying possums that “get depressed if you don’t give them enough attention,” a Russian “glutton” that looks like a small bear and has a huge appetite and a Komodo dragon that “is carnivorous, can take down a horse, and has a ferocious bite.”

In addition, the equerry announces, there will be some crested water dragons known as “Jesus Christ lizards” sent from the president of Costa Rica, and an Etruscan shrew from the president of Portugal that is “the smallest land mammal in the world, can sit in a teaspoon and is so highly strung it can die from being handled.”

On a final note, the man from the palace cautions Jones to keep the lovebirds separated. “They hate each other,” he explains. Jones finds none of this cheering news, especially when the removal of animals from the zoo to the tower turns into the kind of chaos that involves the mysterious disappearance of an entire flock of Argentinian penguins which the beleaguered Beefeater has to justify to the public by explaining they are at the vet’s office.

It is a tribute to Ms. Stuart’s skill that she interweaves a little poignancy into her hilarious story, with a touching account of the death of Milo, small son of Jones and his wife that has resulted in their estrangement.

However, even the character of Hebe Jones is threaded with dark humor because she works at the Department of Lost Property at the London underground, where the lost are neatly packaged yet often never found or even sought. The author digs into that gold mine. The department’s most frequent customer is “cloud thin” Samuel Crapper, who comes to retrieve a lost tomato plant and doesn’t realize that four of its tomatoes had already been eaten on toasted cheese.

And there is the account of how the ashes of his dead wife were restored to a man crushed by their loss. He is not only overjoyed but promptly goes out and plants the urn in his back garden. There is even what passes for a happy ending because the queen decides to send the menagerie back to the zoo, with the exception of the Etruscan shrew that died without anyone noticing.

Jones is reunited with his wife, and finds he misses the bearded pig that used to snuggle up to him between games of roll the grapefruit. But he is consoled that the depressed wandering albatross cheers up when it finds its mate is still waiting for it at the zoo.
 
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Epigraph
We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals. —Immanuel Kant
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For Joan
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Standing on the battlements in his pajamas, Balthazar Jones looked out across the Thames where Henry III's polar bear had once fished for salmon while tied to a rope.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Moving to the reputedly haunted Hampton Court Palace of Queen Victoria when her father's untimely death renders her penniless, Indian princess Alexandrina is befriended by three eccentric widows before her faithful lady's maid, Pooki, is wrongly accused of murder.… (more)

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