Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise

The title: The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise
The author: Julia Stewart
Publication: Doubleday, 2010
Got it from: The library

Balthazar Jones is a Beefeater in the Tower of London, living with his Greek wife Hebe and their 106-year-old tortoise (the oldest in the world, so they've heard). Husband and wife are still grieving the loss of their son Milo when Balthazar is given the chance to be caretaker of the Queen's animals, who are being moved to the Tower for safekeeping. Meanwhile, Hebe is busy working in the London Underground's Lost Property Office while her co-worker Valerie is falling in love with a ticket inspector. Other characters rounding out this zany tale are the tower's resident clergyman, who secretly writes principled erotica under a female pseudenom and is in love; Ruby, the barkeeper who was born and raised within the tower and has just discovered she's pregnant; and the wicked Ravenmaster who's as shifty-eyed and sneaky as the birds he keeps.

This book is more fast-paced and kookier than Amelie, with tons of quirky historical asides and amusing back stories of minor characters, like the tower doctor who was so intent on playing Monopoly that the baby he's supposed to be delivering just shoots out and slides across the floor. There were many genuinely laugh-out-loud moments and it's clear the author has carefully crafted her work. However, there was something about this book that I just couldn't warm up to. The protagonist of the story, Balthazar, was the most uninteresting character and I found I couldn't bring myself to emotionally respond to the loss he and his wife are experiencing. There was so much insanity, so many little asides and back stories, that the main characters just got muddled up in the narrative. I almost would have preferred if it had been a bird's eye view of the tower's kooks without ever really touching too much on one particular couple. I found the periodic heaviness of the death of the son jarring compared to the lighthearted whimsy of the rest of the story. But I would not shy away from recommending this book to anyone with an interest in the Tower of London and an amusing read.

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