Monday, November 22, 2010

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

The Tower of London has been a royal palace since the days of William the Conqueror and the site of many events, including the imprisonment of Elizabeth I and the executions of Anne Boleyn and Sir Walter Raleigh. Now with its museums, the Crown Jewels, and tours run by the Beefeaters, it is a highly popular tourist attraction. What it has not been until now is the setting for a highly entertaining 21st century comic novel. Julia Stuart brings the Tower into the present in her second novel The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise.

Of course, being in the present does not mean the past is forgotten in a place like the Tower of London. Beefeater Balthazar Jones repeats the old stories to tourists daily. The past is also Queen Elizabeth II's source of inspiration for moving the wild animals sent to her by other heads of state on the Tower grounds. Elephants, zebra, and many exotic birds belonging to monarchs were kept there before the London Zoo was opened in the 1830s. According to the Queen's equerry, she wants the already popular Tower to draw bigger crowds and a new menagerie will do the trick. Balthazar and his fellow Beefeaters are not pleased. Balthazar is also dismayed to find himself appointed overseer of the menagerie. Other than caring for an aged tortoise, he knows little about animals.

While much that is funny happens at the Tower, my favorite recurring setting in the novel may be the London Underground's Lost Property Office, where Balthazar's wife Hebe and her free-spirited friend Valerie Jennings work. They try to reunite underground commuters with the purses, clothes, lost teeth, books, and such that they leave at stations or on trains. In their collection that has never been inventoried by computer are some rather bizarre items, including Dustin Hoffman's Academy Award, a sarcophagus, and a safe that they have not been able to open. An unusual group of characters visits regularly to deposit or claim lost items.

Knowing what I like, Bonnie recommended the book, which I now suggest to anyone who like quirky British novels.

Stuart, Julia. The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise. Doubleday, 2010. ISBN 9780385533287.


Becky said...

Thanks for this review Rick. I have been vacillating on whether or not I should read this book. Your review has made up my mind. I just placed a hold for it.

ricklibrarian said...


I hope you like it as much as we did in our house.