The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise

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Overview

Brimming with charm and whimsy, this exquisite novel set in the Tower of London has the transportive qualities and delightful magic of the contemporary classics Chocolat and Amélie.

Balthazar Jones has lived in the Tower of London with his loving wife, Hebe, and his 120-year-old pet tortoise for the past eight years. That’s right, he is a Beefeater (they really do live ...

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The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise

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Overview

Brimming with charm and whimsy, this exquisite novel set in the Tower of London has the transportive qualities and delightful magic of the contemporary classics Chocolat and Amélie.

Balthazar Jones has lived in the Tower of London with his loving wife, Hebe, and his 120-year-old pet tortoise for the past eight years. That’s right, he is a Beefeater (they really do live there). It’s no easy job living and working in the tourist attraction in present-day London.

Among the eccentric characters who call the Tower’s maze of ancient buildings and spiral staircases home are the Tower’s Rack & Ruin barmaid, Ruby Dore, who just found out she’s pregnant; portly Valerie Jennings, who is falling for ticket inspector Arthur Catnip; the lifelong bachelor Reverend Septimus Drew, who secretly pens a series of principled erot­ica; and the philandering Ravenmaster, aiming to avenge the death of one of his insufferable ravens.

When Balthazar is tasked with setting up an elaborate menagerie within the Tower walls to house the many exotic animals gifted to the Queen, life at the Tower gets all the more interest­ing. Penguins escape, giraffes are stolen, and the Komodo dragon sends innocent people running for their lives. Balthazar is in charge and things are not exactly running smoothly. Then Hebe decides to leave him and his beloved tortoise “runs” away.

Filled with the humor and heart that calls to mind the delight­ful novels of Alexander McCall Smith, and the charm and beauty of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise is a magical, wholly origi­nal novel whose irresistible characters will stay with you long after you turn the stunning last page.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews

A sensitive Beefeater, his wife and assorted other eccentrics cope with modern life in the infamous Tower of London.

Considering he spends much of his day telling tourists where the lavatories are, Balthazar Jones takes pride in his coveted role as Yeoman Warder (aka Beefeater) for one on England's top destinations. The former officer in Her Majesty's Forces shares his centuries-old, on-site lodgings with his wife Hebe, a no-nonsense woman of Greek descent who works in the lost-and-found office for the London subway service. Once very much in love, Balthazar and Hebe have grown apart since the death of their 11-year-old son Milo three years ago. Balthazar's life takes an unexpected turn when he is put in charge of the Tower's new menagerie. Consisting of animals gifted to the Queen by various nations, the new arrivals include a Komodo dragon, giraffes erroneously credited to the country of Sweden, as well as some naughty marmosets. The non-zoo Tower residences include the unlucky-in-love Rev. Septimus Drew, who writes erotica under a pseudonym while yearning for Ruby Dore, the proprietress at the Tower's only pub. Oblivious to the reverend's adoration, Ruby finds herself in the delicate situation of being pregnant and unwed. Then there is the mustachioed Ravenmaster, who, when he's not looking after his ill-natured flock, manages to carry on a dalliance with the pneumatic cook, Ambrosine Clarke. The zoo proves popular with visitors, and Balthazar finds himself bonding with creatures great and small. But his enthusiasm for the zoo doesn't help his damaged marriage, as Hebe makes a fateful decision that impacts them both. Our hero is left trying to win back his wife's heart while juggling multiple potential catastrophes.

Stuart's second novel (The Matchmaker of Périgord, 2008) employs a whimsical over-the-top style that occasionally draws attention to itself, but the tale is grounded by the moving central love story. This sweet romp will appeal to history buffs.

From the Publisher
“[A] hilarious love story. . . . This book will steal your heart.” —People 
 
“History buffs, animal lovers, and simply the tenderhearted will swoon over this captivating story. . . . Sweet and enchanting.” —Entertainment Weekly, Grade A
 
“Feather-light without being feather-brained. Julia Stuart has penned a work that is original and every-page amusing.” —The Denver Post
 
“A marvelous confection of a book.” —The Washington Times
 
“Delightfully zany and touching. . . . With her deft and charming style, Stuart brings this comic story to a satisfying and heartwarming end.” —The Washington Post

“Julia Stuart’s sweet The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise is a blessing, undisguised and undeniable, and apparent from the first sentence. . . . [A] tale at once contemporary and timeless. . . . The Tower, of course, is known as the home of the Crown Jewels, and Stuart’s many-faceted little gem adds to its glitter.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
 
“This is fine writing. . . . For [those] who could use a little whimsy and a rousing good yarn, turtle soup is on.” —The Plain Dealer
 
“Imagine a funny, poignant book, full of delightful and wacky characters, then add a bit of English history, and you’ve got The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise. . . . This is Carl Hiaasen for the Tower of London.” —NPR, “Best Books of 2010”
 
The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise unfolds with an airy whimsy. . . . Great fun. . . . For all that [Stuart’s] setups are ingenious, she never loses sight of the humanity of her characters. . . . Both original and memorably enjoyable.” —The Denver Post
 
“Stuart’s tale is a comedy of realms—her Tower, her England—where people and things are out of place. . . . Sometimes it takes an escaped Komodo dragon for people to begin sorting out their lives.” —BookPage
 
“A charming spoof.” —The Washington Times
 
“Enjoyable and humorous. . . . Has a human genuineness to it that is touching and, at times, heartbreaking.” —The Gainesville Times
 
“[A] treat for Anglophiles.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
 
“It’s the delicate balance of odd and normal that makes Stuart’s book irresistible.” —Sacramento Book Review
 
“Stuart’s attempt to combine current reality with the ghostly past is a brilliant premise. . . . Remarkably funny. . . . Stuart is obviously fascinated by the multiple histories that inhabit the tower, and her research flavours the novel well.” —The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
 
“An absolute delight.” —IndieLondon
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385533287
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/10/2010
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 8.80 (w) x 11.04 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author

JULIA STUART is the author of one previous novel, The Matchmaker of Périgord. A native of England, she now resides in Bahrain.

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Read an Excerpt

Which The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise character are you? Answer the following questions and find out who!

1. You’re tasked with babysitting your neighbor’s new piglets for the weekend when one decides to flee your grasp and head for the hills. What do you do?
a) Call your best friend who works at the local “Lost and Found” and report a missing mammal.
b) Sit idle. Pigs, regardless of size are too fast to catch.
c) Grab a handful of fruits and veggies from the fridge and head out to lure the piglet back to safety.
d) Grimace and wring your hands as you realize that this animal on the loose has not only delayed your finishing your latest bodice-buster, but also caused you to burn the treacle cake that was baking in the oven.

2. You’re invited to visit friends in New York City and have some spare time before you’re due to meet them. What do you do while you wait?
a) Stop at Alice’s Tea Cup for tea and a scone and then ride the subway through the boroughs looking for items riders have left behind. New Yorkers must have some interesting things to lose, right?
b) Enjoy some shade in Central Park. No need to exhaust yourself in the concrete jungle just yet.
c) Take a leisurely stroll through Central Park Zoo. You’ve heard there are new chinstrap penguins in the Penguin House!
d) Head to the MTA office to complain about the rat infestation in the subway system.

3. Your boss just gave you the day off of work. How will you spend these precious hours of freedom?
a) Catching up on the latest town gossip with your best friend.
b) Work? I’ve been retired…for a very long time. Every day is a day off!
c) At the local pub. Every vacation day deserves its own toast!
d) Speed dating. There have to be some eligible singles out there with a comparable penchant for storytelling.

4. You’re just headed out of the grocery store when it starts pouring rain…and you don’t have an umbrella. How do you react?
a) There’s no sense in getting upset over a shower. You’ll dry off and warm up with some tea when you make it home.
b) Piece of cake. My outerwear is always durable…and I could use a good rinse.
c) Rain fascinates you. You don’t care if all of your groceries get soggy; you’re going to soak up this rain for as long as you can.
d) You pull your coat up over your head and hurry home to make sure the rain isn’t driving the field mice indoors.

5. You just won a contest through your local radio station. You’ve won an all expense paid trip to any city/country of your choice. Where will you go?
a) Santorini, Greece: You love the history and heritage, not to mention the views!
b) The town next door has always intrigued you. You can only carry what’s on your back, so the proximity helps you cut down on packing.
c) South Africa: You’ll finally be able to see wild animals in their natural habitat.
d) Rome, Italy: You’ve always wanted to visit the Coliseum and hear stories about its classic battles and gladiator contests.

If you answered mostly…
A: You are Hebe Jones! Loyal friend and dedicated employee with an affinity for problem solving.
B: You are Mrs. Cook! The Jones’ 181-year-old tortoise. The oldest tortoise in the world. Congratulations; you’ve earned the right to be lazy.
C: You are Balthazar Jones! Animal lover and collector of rain.
D: You are Reverend Septimus Drew! The Tower’s lovelorn chaplain who despises mice and has a secret passion for writing…well, you know.

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Interviews & Essays

It was the image of Henry III's polar bear fishing for salmon next to the Tower of London that made me want to write The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise. The thought of the creature sitting on the bank of the Thames during the thirteenth century pawing the water or swimming in it was irresistible, to say nothing of the river once being clean enough to stock his supper.

I found this delightful piece of historical trivia while searching for a plot for my second novel. I already knew that I wanted to set it in the Tower of London, having read an article about the beefeaters and their families living there, along with a chaplain and doctor. I paid several visits, and read numerous guidebooks, and discovered that it once housed a menagerie that spanned 600 years, eventually closing in the 1830s. Many of the animals had been gifts from heads of state. The white bear, as records refer to our hungry friend (there's every hope that he was a polar bear), was a gift from Norway. Further research revealed that the Queen was still being sent gifts of live animals in the 1970s, many of which were kept at London Zoo.

It was then that I came up with the plot for a modern-day Tower menagerie. I would take a fictional collection of badly behaved royal beasts from London Zoo and bring them back to the famous fortress. In charge of it would be Balthazar Jones, a beefeater who owns Mrs Cook, the oldest tortoise in the world. But more than anything I wanted to write a novel in which I could put Henry's exotic white bear in the very first sentence. And now I can think of him with his tummy full, basking in the spotlight.

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Reading Group Guide

In the tradition of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Chocolat, Julia Stuart’s exquisite new novel is brimming with charm, whimsy, and wonder. The following questions are intended to enhance your reading experience and to generate lively discussion among the members of your book group.

1. While filled with humour, The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise has an undercurrent of heartache. Why do you think the author included the tragic element—could the story have survived without it?

2. The novel is strewn with historical anecdotes. Which do you think are true, and which do you think the author made up, if any?

3. Much is made of British humour. Do you think that there is any difference between British and American humour? If so, how is it demonstrated in the book?

4. Explain the correlation between Balthazar’s inability to cry about Milo’s death and his obsession with collecting rain drops.

5. Hebe Jones sarcastically states that “It’s every woman’s dream to live in a castle.” (p. 22) How is this statement not true for Hebe. What do you think is Hebe’s dream?

6. What is the main attraction between Arthur Catnip and Valerie Jennings? How are they a well-suited match?

7. How is the lost safe significant to Hebe and Valerie?  Is their any significance to the timing of when the lock is opened?

8. Reverend Septimus Drew seems to be a walking contradiction. Outside of his hidden hobby, what else is surprising/contradictory about his character?

9. All of the characters seem to be in search of something—whether lost love, items, loved ones, or animals. Who do you think is the most fulfilled character in the book, if there is any? Why?

10. Sir Walter Raleigh and many other spirits claim to haunt the Tower. What element do these ghosts add to the book? Is it more spiritual or superstitious? 

11. What is the significance of the urn that Hebe finds in London Underground’s Lost Property Office? Why is she so resolved to find its owner?

12. Explain how infidelity affects various characters in the book.

13. How does working in the menagerie make Balthazar feel closer to Milo?

14. What role does Mrs. Cook play in the novel? She is in part responsible for Balthazar’s job at the menagerie—how else has she played an integral role in Hebe and Balthazar’s lives?

15. What role does storytelling and letter writing play in the book? Balthazar won both Hebe and Milo’s hearts with his grand storytelling. Who else from the Tower is a raconteur?

(For a complete list of a available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com.)

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 87 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(24)

4 Star

(32)

3 Star

(20)

2 Star

(6)

1 Star

(5)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 87 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2011

    Loved this book!

    Julia Stuart has a witty, intelligent voice I loved the characters and their relationships with one another. Truly an amusing read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 23, 2010

    A bit ploddy

    I looked forward to reading this novel in advance of a trip to London, to learn something of the Tower and its inhabitants. Sweet characters, but the pace is glacial and the story doesn't pull together quite as well as I'd hoped. Read it if, unlike me, you don't have a stack of unread books in the library.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 27, 2010

    VERY disappointed

    When I saw this book while looking for some new "reads" this caught my eye and I was so excited I almost ran out to the store to get it. I am glad I didn't make a special trip and wish I had not bought this book. I am not one to give up on books, but I got halfway through it and just couldn't do it anymore! It was awful. Nothing of what I expected.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 22, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Ever wonder what it's like to live and work at the Tower of London?

    This novel is about the people who live and work at the Tower of London. Their lives change when the queen decides to move the animals, that have been given to her as gifts, from the London Zoo to the Tower to help attract more tourists. Beefeater Balthazar Jones is put in charge of the menagerie. His marriage is on the rocks because of the sudden death of his young son. His wife, Hebe, works in the Department of Lost Things where people leave the most amazing things; a horse costume, a magician's cabinet, an Egyptian sarcophagus.

    Balthazar works through his loss by becoming obsessed with rain water and then taking care of the animals; whereas Hebe devotes herself to her job. It is appropriate that Hebe works at a lost and found as the theme of this novel is loneliness and longing. The things people leave on the Tube are both hilarious and sad and the ladies go out of their way to find the owners. Like the lost objects, all of the characters have lost someone or are looking for someone. The story is full of both humor and pathos.

    This was a quick read. I enjoyed the quirky characters, the funny discriptions of the animals and their behavior and the historical anecdotes that are interspersed throughout the novel.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 21, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Slow and Steady Wins

    I received this book through the First Reads giveaway program on Goodreads.

    As a Beefeater, Balthazar Jones and his wife, Hebe, live in the Salt Tower at the Tower of London with Mrs. Cook, their hundred-and-eighty-one-year-old tortoise. Their marriage has been reduced to a shell of it's former passion in the few years since the sudden death of their young son, Milo. Balthazar's life is thrown into further turmoil when he is appointed to re-establish and maintain a menagerie of animals given to the Queen. When Hebe leaves him, his despondency reaches an all-time low. The Tower is also populated by an eccentric group of individuals, each of whom has his or her own secrets and life-issues to deal with but each of whom is impacted in some way by the arrival at the Tower of the new menagerie.

    Stuart has created a fascinating Tower of London guidebook within a beautifully written story. Her recounting of the tales and legends of the Tower alone would be enough reason to read this book, but she's also provided a glimpse into the lives of a unique community that will have you laughing out loud one minute and shedding tears the next. There are enough subplots running through the book that you begin to wonder if some will be left hanging, but they're all tied up neatly and completely by the time Mrs. Cook makes her final, triumphant appearance. Ultimately, this is a book about love; parental, marital, illicit - love wished for and love spurned. We learn from this eclectic cast of characters that love found, love lost, and love rekindled are too important to leave to chance. They desire the full attention of our hearts and minds and are worth nothing less.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 11, 2013

    Satisfyingly Predictable.

    The story was very interesting with lots of depth to the characters. There were lots of twists throughout, but the ending left it as you had predicted, or hoped, it would.

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  • Posted July 23, 2013

    I enjoyed the book. After reading some of the less stellar revie

    I enjoyed the book. After reading some of the less stellar reviews, I can see that some other readers did not appreciate the style or the humor that Stuart uses, but I thought it was entertaining. The glimpses of the life that residents of the Tower lead are truly interesting. Having been one of those tourists, I had to laugh at some of the questions Stuart's Tower visitors pose and the behaviors she attributes to them! I am sure the residents face many of those situations. The story has a serious underlying theme that I thought kept it grounded. I have become a Julia Stuart fan and look forward to reading her other books. I think she offers a fresh style and an opportunity to smile. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 17, 2013

    what a delightful book. A bit slow at the beginning, but stick w

    what a delightful book. A bit slow at the beginning, but stick with it. entertaining.funny,clever. 

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  • Posted August 15, 2012

    Interesting to a point.

    It was a bit irritating when the author kept repeatedly using all the characters first and last names throughout the book. Not quite sure the point in this story, either. If there is nothing else to read, then try it.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 11, 2012

    Interesting Reading

    This was not a book I would have bought on my own but read it due to a book club commitment. I thought the book was rather sad and it did keep my interest but it would not be one I, personally, would recommend to a friend.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 8, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Posted May 31, 2011

    Sweet, eccentric and poignant

    Set in the present day at the Tower of London, this book is about loss and the effect it has on the hearts, minds and lives of those it touches. Balthazar Jones, one of the iconic Beefeaters, has suffered the unexpected death of his 11 year old son. His grief drives a wedge between him and his beloved wife, who also has to deal with that horrific loss. She works at the Lost and Found department for the London Underground, trying to re-unite people with their possessions which had one way or another been lost on the Tube. Most of the other characters have to deal with various of their own, ranging from of dreams to love to that of a tail. The central event is the re-establishment of the Royal Menagerie at the Tower, with Balthazar reluctantly installed as Keeper. Here again, there are losses, from the mysterious disappearance of the penguins to the mourning of the wandering albatross who had been separated from his mate. The book is a poignant exploration of grief and redemption. The pace is slow and deliberate, the characters quirky, the humor light and clean. I found it to be sweet and lovely; I was loathe to see it end.

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  • Posted February 25, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Fast-paced as a Tortoise Crawl Fast-paced as a Tortoise Crawl Fast-paced as a Tortoise Crawl

    I picked up THE TOWER, THE ZOO, AND THE TORTOISE because of all the praise it had received from critics and reviewers. While cute, the story is as entertaining and fast-paced as watching two English women discussing the weather in London whilst sipping tea.

    The story involves a Beefeater (a ceremonial guardian/tour guide of the Tower of London; hence THE TOWER in the book's title) who lost a young son and, since then, he and his wife have been growing apart. They also have a pet turtle named Mrs. Cook that's been in the family for years (THE TORTOISE in the book's title). The Beefeater is then asked to be in charge of a new zoo they want to put together that would encompass all of the gifts of exotic and non-exotic animals given to the Queen of England from countries around the world (THE ZOO).

    Filled with interesting facts about Beefeaters, the Tower of London, and life in London, the novel seemed to be lacking in actual substance. While I don't require a lot of action or fast-paced stories, I do like books that I read to be interesting enough that I want to continue turning the page. THE TOWER, THE ZOO, AND THE TORTOISE did not do this for me and I can't help but wonder if critics gave it a high rating and exuberant praise only to make themselves feel culturally relevant and somewhat literary.

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  • Posted November 13, 2010

    Quirky, original, funny!

    This book immediately strikes you as goofy...then it hooks you with its quirky humor. It is an easy, enjoyable read.

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  • Posted October 21, 2010

    To say the characters in this book are eccentric is putting it mildly!

    The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise (couldn't it have been given a better title?!) opens with Balthazar Jones, a guard in the Tower of London, and his wife Hebe. They have suffered a tragedy and no longer get any pleasure out of living in the Tower with its gruesome history and quirky daily life. Then Balthazar is ordered to resurrect the Tower's zoo and everything changes. The story is packed with side plots including a priest who moonlights as a racy author, a pregnant barmaid, and the gossipy goings on in the local underground lost and found office.

    To say the characters in this book are eccentric is putting it mildly! Not a single person here is remotely normal, so if you are looking for a realistic portrayal of life in the Tower this is not the book for you. However, all of those strange and messed up characters do make for some good entertainment if you can just suspend belief for awhile and allow yourself to enter their weird and wonderful world. I especially loved the world of Hebe's work in the lost and found office. The stories of found items, how they arrived there and how the rightful owners were located did make me laugh. I did find the book to be a little too over-the-top for my taste, but enjoyed it nonetheless.

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  • Posted September 29, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A fun exploration of the world inside the Tower of London

    Good story, vibrant characters, quick read, a fresh setting . . . what's not to love? I found myself digging through my snapshots of my visit to the Tower of London to see where the warder's apartments were and refresh my memories of the world of which I had only the most superficial glimpses. Loved it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 20, 2010

    This book is an excellent book!

    Very clever, wonderful characters. Loved it! Looking forward to the next book by Julia Stuart...

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  • Posted September 17, 2010

    Really wierd

    I was totally disappointed with the book. Kept reading to find out what happened to Milo. Just not my kind of book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 2, 2010

    Charming!

    This is a sweet, charming and funny look at the fictional life of a Beefeater and his neighbors living in the Tower of London. It's jammed packed with fun facts about the Tower and the lives those who live there. (I've never been there but now I really want to go!) It's a heartwarming story and an easy read. Any one interested in English History will find this book a lot of fun. I look forward to reading more books by Juilia Stuart.

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  • Posted August 30, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    a good rainy afternoon read perhaps

    The situation and characters are kooky--and then, sometimes, quite touching. I was continually reminded of the adult characters from the Harry Potter novels as I read this because each character in this novel, too, was an outrageously drawn caricature. The comic effect of these characters and the situation of new tower zoo contrasts sharply with the real-to-life conflict that threatens to tear apart Balthazar, the Beefeater Zoo Keeper, and his wife, Hebe. I enjoyed this "tale" of the zoo keeper and his wife. It is light reading with a very touching ending.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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