Monday, February 21, 2011

The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart

Balthazar Jones is a Beefeater who works and lives in the Tower of London with his wife, Hebe, and their ancient tortoise, Mrs. Cook. Balthazar and Hebe's marriage has been falling apart since the death of their son, three years earlier. Aside from this serious element to the plot, The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise is best described as whimsical. It will appeal to readers looking for something light with a lively cast of characters (nearly caricatures) and zany action.

Hebe and her friend Valerie work at the London Underground Department of Lost Articles, tracking down owners of oddities like glass eyes and funeral urns. Valerie is being wooed by a tattooed ticket inspector named Alfred Catnip. Valerie usually manages to be wearing something odd when Alfred turns up at their service counter: a theatrical beard; a viking helmet complete with blonde braids; or a horse costume. There are several other romantic liaisons underway with characters who are even more bizarre. It's wacky, I tell you!

Because Balthazar owns a tortoise, he is the Beefeater chosen to be in charge of a new menagerie at the Tower of London. The assortment of animals have all been presented as gifts to the Queen from foreign governments: a zorilla, a glutton, a pair of Jesus Christ lizards, a tiny Etruscan shrew, and so on. More fun than a barrel of monkeys. (Speaking of which, the Geoffroy's  marmosets have a habit of exposing their private parts whenever they are under stress.)

It took me a while to get used to Julia Stuart's style, which is a jumbled heap of metaphor and simile, but I enjoyed it overall. I think it was the tragedy at the heart of the tale that salvaged this book for me.

Readalikes: Quirky, romantic fare like Chocolat by Joanne Harris; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer; The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith and the film Amelie.

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