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The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise    by Julia Stuart order for
Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise
by Julia Stuart
Order:  USA  Can
Doubleday, 2010 (2010)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

As one might predict from the title, The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise, Julia Stuart has written a charming novel filled with quirky, endearing characters, their relationships frayed and mended in unique workplace settings - the Tower of London and the London Underground's Lost Property Office.

Most characters get their fair share of the spotlight, but if there is a lead, it would be Beefeater Balthazar Jones who has lived and worked in the Tower for eight years along with his wife Hebe and his hundred and twenty year old tortoise, Mrs. Cook. Their lives have been overshadowed by the death (unexplained till late in the story) of their beloved son Milo. They 'found themselves swimming in opposite directions as they battled to survive' and 'ended up collapsed on distant shores, marooned by their grief and aiming their anger over losing him at each other.'

As the story begins, Equerry to the Queen Oswin Fielding assigns Balthazar the job of transferring exotic animals (given to Her Majesty by foreign nations) from the London Zoo to a new royal menagerie in the Tower (a previous one in the 1800s was 'an immensely popular tourist attraction' and it's hoped that the new one will revitalize Tower tourism). The transfer - including toucans, a zorilla, marmosets, a sugar glider, a glutton, a Komodo dragon, crested water dragons, a highly strung Etruscan shrew, and lovebirds who hate each other - ends up being a hilarious comedy of errors.

When not in her circular home in the Tower, Hebe works alongside her colleague Valerie Jennings, of the 'marvellous girth'. Valerie's courtship by ticket inspector Arthur Catnip is a paean to romance - for those with a well developed sense of humor. The objects that end up lost and found are very, very funny, but the one Hebe obsesses over is an urn of ashes, inscribed 'Clementine Perkins, 1939 to 2008, RIP.' How could someone lose a loved one's cremains and how awful must they feel about it? Hebe is determined to restore the urn to the bereaved owner.

Other subplots follow Balthazar's friend, Reverend Septimus Drew, who's 'one of Britain's most successful writers of erotic fiction', shortlisted for the Erotic Fiction Awards. He pines for the Tower's Rack & Ruin pub barmaid, Ruby Dore, who's just discovered that she's pregnant (Septimus is not the dad). Then there's the Tower Ravenmaster, who's enjoying secret liaisons with Ambrosine Clarke, delicious new chef (whose cuisine is catastrophic) at the Tower Café. The poor Yeoman Gaoler is haunted by the most unquiet ghost of Sir Walter Raleigh. And finally there's a vendetta between Mrs. Cook and the raven who ate her tail.

Julia Stuart pulls all these pieces together into a touching story that doesn't hesitate to laugh at itself and at life, despite the inevitable sadness and tragedy. I loved reading The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise, a novel to savor and to re-read from time to time when one's spirits need a lift.

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