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Sunday, January 9, 2011

What I'm Reading: The Tower, The Zoo , and the Tortoise

Please note: This is the second of two reports on books I finished reading in 2010. 2011 titles will begin being reviewed soon.

Whilethe last book I reported on, The City and the City, disappointed me, The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise pleasantly surprised me.  I have had Julia Stuart's book on my "to-read" list since I read a review of it this past summer.  Over the busy holidays and after 3 months of mostly non-stop horror book reading, I was looking for something lighter, more fun, but still interesting.  My RSS feed of ricklibrarian and his review of this novel, finally pushed The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise to the top of the reading pile.

Before I get to the plot, I love that Stuart began her novel with both a map of the Tower and a list of characters including a phrase that describes them and their place in the story.  The map helped me to picture the tower and all of its buildings.  This became useful as the Queen's animals starting arriving and were placed all over the property.  Also, the character descriptions were both intriguing and quirky.  This helped to set the slightly off-kilter humor tone of the novel, while still inserting the proper level of gravity.

But before we get too ahead of the game, here are some important plot points.  Balthazar Jones is a Beefeater who lives in the Tower of London with his wife Hebe.  She is one of two employees who run the Tube's Office of Lost Property.  The scenes involving Hebe and her co-worker in that office are among the most touching, most humorous, most original, and most quirky in the novel. (Can you tell I loved this narrative choice?)  The Jones' are also the owners of Mrs Cook, an almost 200 year old tortoise who has famously been part of Balthazar's family for generations

Balthazar and Hebe are not doing well right now.  Both have been quite depressed since the death of their pre-teen son about a year ago.  They have not had a frank and open discussion about it, and as a result, they are drifting apart.  Hebe is keeping her anger bottled up, and is finding solace in the lost items at work; however, when an urn with cremated ashes is turned in, she is forced to confront her grief while trying to find the urn's owner.

Balthazar is barely holding it together.  He has become obsessed with collecting the rain, is shirking his responsibilities as a guide and guard at the Tower, and he feels he is to blame for their son's death.  Balthazar's salvation comes when the Queen (through one of her employees) asks Balthazar, owner and carer of Mrs. Cook, to become the caretaker of a menagerie of animals which were gifts to the Queen.  She wants them removed from the zoo and placed in the Tower, much as Kings and Queens of days gone by kept animals at the Tower.

You can imagine this adds a heightened level of hilarity to the story.  Particularly, Balthazar's stealing of a bearded pig, their touching friendship is wonderful.  The scene where they actually transport the animals from the zoo to the Tower is also worth a second read.  It is through his care for the animals after Hebe leaves him, that Balthazar can finally finish grieving for his dead son.

The side stories here also help to lighten the sadness.  The Reverend who is also a best-selling Romance writer, the pregnant barkeep, and the philandering Ravenmaster are just some of the characters you will meet.  If you want a fun story with serious undertones, look no further.

Appeal: What I found most endearing about this novel was how it was a nice story with an intriguing and different frame, quirky and lovable characters, but did not sacrifice a good story to achieve this.  In the RA biz we would call this a gentle read, but that is often seen as a disparaging comment.  Gentle read simply means that is an old fashioned, but not unsophisticated story.  Like all good gentle reads the story also felt timeless.  This novel takes place now, but since the characters work in a tourist location, dress in funny clothes, and the lost property office is without computers (this is explained), it could take place really at any time.

This is also a story where the plot is not as important as the characters, their thoughts, and their interactions.  Although the quirky things that happen add speed to the pace, overall this is a book you read because you want to spend time with the characters.  It is the Jones', their problems, and the story of how they need to heal on their own before they can begin to heal together that is the point.  So although this book begs to be read in gulps, and it doesn't take a long time to read, I would not call it fast-paced.

The interesting historical facts about the Tower and Beefeaters in general (including details about the cool clothes they wear) are all appeal factors that cannot be overlooked.  Many readers will enjoy learning something new while reading this novel.

Also, it is important to note that while the over all tone of the novel is light it has a noticeable undercurrent of sadness.  It is a realistic portrayal of a family dealing with grief.  Unlike a Jodi Picoult novel which thrives on over-the top-melodrama, The Tower, The Zoo and The Tortoise is a quiet and thoughtful look at the difficulties of dealing with the death of a child, even for the best matched couple.  And the quirky sub-plots add to the entertainment value of the novel.  Stuart should be quite proud of her ability to create a thoughtful and serious story which is still fun to read.

Three Words That Describe This Book:  character-centered, quirky, thoughtful

Readalikes: This novel calls to mind other standouts in the gentle reads field which I have enjoyed:  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, the works of Sandra Dallas, Adriana Trigiani, and Fannie Flagg as well as Ann B. Ross's Miss Julia books are all good choices here.  These books all have characters who are interesting and situations that are original, with an overall quirkiness which is fun but not silly.

A few people I know who have read this book also turned right away to histories about the Tower and its residents.  I have directed them to The Tower of London: Past and Present by Geoffrey Parnell which is available in my library system.

Overall, if you are looking for quieter read that will hold your attention, and comment on the nature of human relationships, try Stuart's excellent title.

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