The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise (abandoned)

Before you read this post, there is something you should know about me. I have an incredibly low tolerance for quirkiness, sweetness, cuteness, and sentimentality. I can tolerate all of these things in small doses, but usually I need a bit of bite to keep my teeth from hurting. Something like a spoonful of acid to make the sugar go down. However, I also know that I am in the minority on this score. So when I complain that a book is overly cute, too sentimental, ridiculously quirky, I know that it is my own personal complaint and that the book I’m griping about may be just perfect for everyone else. The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart (Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo in the UK) is just such a book.

I received this book from the LibraryThing Early Review program, and I was delighted to get it. It’s one of the few times I’ve gotten my first choice on the list. Although I love my sad ponderous tomes, I do enjoy something light and fun once in a while, and this book about the (fictional) return of the Royal Menagerie to the Tower of London looked like just the charming sort of thing I might enjoy.

The book focuses on Balthazar Jones, one of the Yeoman Warders (Beefeaters) who live and work at the Tower of London. Balthazar and his wife Hebe lost their son Milo years ago, and their marriage has struggled ever since. Balthazar and Hebe are surrounded by a wacky cast of characters. These include Reverend Septimus Drew, chaplain of the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, which is located on the Tower grounds. When the Reverend isn’t grumbling about the rats that nibble on his cassock while he’s at prayer, he’s secretly writing erotic (but principled!) novels.

There’s also Valerie Jennings, Hebe’s coworker at the London Underground lost and found, and Valerie’s secret admirer Arthur Catnip, who brings her novels about stout intellectual women conquering serpents, speaking at Parliament, and fending off admirers. Arthur is too shy to admit that he’s bringing them as gifts to Valerie, so he always claims he found them on the Underground.

Stuart peppers the narrative with lots of facts about the Tower of London and its history. I visited the Tower on my first trip to London three years ago, and it does have a fascinating history, but Stuart too often shares the story with awkward fact-dumps that don’t flow elegantly into the narrative. It works well when, for example, she describes Milo’s first day at the Tower and all the scary stories the Tower children told him. However, in the opening chapters, the fact-dumps occur every time a new part of the Tower is mentioned. They come across as glaring “look I did my research” signals.

Worse than the fact-dumps are the quirkiness dumps. The Underground Lost and Found office is home to an inflatable sex doll on whose wrist Hebe and Valerie keep a roll of tape after having lost it one too many times. The food at the Tower Cafe is inedible, as we learn every time the cafe is mentioned. The Tower doctor misses a character’s birth because he was embroiled in a vicious Monopoly game that culminated in his opponent swallowing the boot, the doctor’s preferred playing piece.

Almost every anecdote or incident has some silly twist that seems calculated to amuse. And that’s the trouble; it feels calculated. And repetitive, given Stuart’s propensity to repeat her jokes. I think the storyline involving the death of Milo is meant to offset the goofiness, but that veers toward a cloying sort of pathos, which ends up being jarring—and again, calculated, although calculated to elicit tears instead of chuckles.

I finally gave up on the book when Balthazar went to the London Zoo to oversee the transfer of the animals to the Tower and the keeper of the marmosets was in the ladies’ room weeping because she couldn’t coax her charges out of their enclosure. Yes, that’s right, the keepers at the London Zoo are driven to tears because they cannot handle animals, which is their job, which they are highly trained to do. I know I’m being a curmudgeon to complain about a small detail like this in a book with a patently preposterous premise, but this detail shows how hard Stuart is trying to be silly, without thinking about the logic of the story. The trick, I think, to pulling off a preposterous premise is surrounding it with believable details, and the details here are as ridiculous as the premise. The piling on of ridiculousness takes the book over the top.

So at page 110 of 304, I’ve decided I’m done. It’s just not worth my time to continue. I don’t hate it exactly, but I’m trying not to waste my time on books I’m not enjoying, and I’m enjoying this less and less as I read on. I’m sure, however, that others will like it. President Obama took it with him on vacation. It’s just not the book for me.

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34 Responses to The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise (abandoned)

  1. Lenore says:

    Wow – now that sounds like a quirk overdose!

  2. I am not a big fan of zoos in general (strange, I know) so I am not sure if this would work for me. Thanks for the honest review.

  3. Gavin says:

    Thanks for the review. I completely agree on quirkiness, sweetness and cuteness. Any of those qualities turn me off rather quickly.

  4. Audrey says:

    I haven’t read this (want, or at least wanted, to) but I’ve often thought that being a cranky, grouchy, curmudegon doesn’t mean I’m wrong about things. :) (And there’s nothing worse than ‘Look, I did my research!’ signals, is there?) I hope you at least had fun hating the book!

  5. Bumbles says:

    The premise sounds very inventive doesn’t it? I can see why you would be drawn to select it. I appreciate your explanation for abandoning. I am never able to do that. I just can’t! Every now and then a book that I didn’t enjoy in the beginning turned into a great read by the end – so I suffer through the doozies hoping that there really is a diamond in the rough in there – usually not. So reviews like this help me to know if I personally may or may not enjoy the journey or save me the time for something else. Thanks!

    • Teresa says:

      I’m getting outright merciless in my abandonment. I used to have to feel active loathing before giving up, but I’m getting where I have to actively like a book before I continue.

  6. I have a much higher tolerance for quirkiness, but I totally agree that the quirkiness in this one seemed far too calculated, which made it lose much of the charm it should have had.

  7. Steph says:

    I think I probably enjoy a quirky novel more than the average reader, but I think there is a way to make quirk feel organic to your characters and your plot rather than something you just vomited up for the sake of having something weird on the page. Also, it’s important to rein the craziness in, kind of like the cardinal rule of accessorizing: before you leave the house, remove one accessory. Sometimes less is more.

    It really is a shame this one falters so badly. It sounds like a book with much promise for those Anglophiles of us out there, and yet it sounds like it wound up getting out of control and getting the best of the author. I think you nailed the failure in the discussion in your penultimate paragraph. Silly at the sacrifice of internal logic is a problem.

    • Teresa says:

      I *love* that accessory analogy. I think Stuart would have been much better off had she asked herself whether each and every amusing detail had an actual purpose.

  8. Wow! I have heard good things about this and I love getting an alternate view. I do have it so I’ll be interested to see if I get very far, since it sounds like you make excellent points in your critique!

    • Teresa says:

      I always hate to be the nay-sayer, but I often appreciate the nay-saying reviews when I read them, so I feel like I have to speak up when something doesn’t work. I’ll be interested to see how this works out for you, since with Jen’s comment above, it seems I’m not alone, but Softdrink Jill really liked it. So who knows?

  9. softdrink says:

    I had forgotten about the repetition. The author did it a bunch of times and it seriously bugged.

    I must have been in the mood for cute, though, since I enjoyed the book way more than you did! Plus, the animal sketches helped.

    • Teresa says:

      I wonder if I would have liked this more if I’d been in a different mood. I don’t think I would because I was in the mood for cute when I picked this up–just not this much cuteness :) I can certainly see it’s appeal, though, and I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  10. J.G. says:

    With this kind of quirkiness, either you’re entranced or you’re not. And if you’re not, you’re not. No apologies! You did the right thing to bail out. Life is too short!

    • Teresa says:

      I think you’re right–this is the kind of thing you either buy into or don’t. And once that bit of criticism creeps into my thinking with this kind of book, it’s over.

  11. Kathleen says:

    This sounds like one I wouldn’t enjoy either although I would probably torture myself to finish reading it. I have a bad habit of not being able to stop reading books, even when I don’t enjoy them.

  12. Jenny says:

    Well, darn. I like quirky cute things, but I feel like it’s so easy for them to cross over into being self-conscious, and that’s never fun to read. I like zoos, but I didn’t like the Tower of London (alas! it was just like a postcard!), and repetition in books is one of the things that drives me absolutely crazy. I’d far rather they say something once and make me go back and look for it, than say it a dozen times to make sure I never forget. :/

    • Teresa says:

      Yes! This was just so self-conscious. I could tell she was trying to be cute, and I couldn’t get into it.

      And you know, the funny thing with the repetition is that it wasn’t even plot points we needed to remember, just quirky actions and thoughts. The word tourist was always modified with the word loathsome, every time a worker went into the Lost and Found, they tried to open a found safe, and so on. Jokes aren’t funny the 10th time.

  13. Frisbee says:

    I liked the cover of this and did read a few pages at B&N. It didn’t quite take. I thought vaguely of getting it at the library but now will probably just read a few more pages at the library and then reject it. The Tower of London didn’t appeal to me.

  14. Meg says:

    I’ve seen mixed reactions to this one all over the place, and I’m still convinced that I should either run out and grab it or stay far, far away! I enjoyed your honest review… I’ll keep pondering.

    • Teresa says:

      I have a feeling this will be very much a Marmite book, beloved by those who can let themselves get absorbed in it and disliked by those who can’t. I also suspect that it wouldn’t take more than a chapter or two to know, so you could always do a quick read of the first chapters at the bookstore or library.

  15. Kristen M. says:

    Okay … I finished it yesterday and liked it quite a bit. I’m hoping that some of the repetitiveness was taken out in editing. I almost wish I had time to read a final copy before my review because if that was improved then I really loved it. I didn’t find it too sweet at all but maybe a bit too forced in the quirkiness!

    • Teresa says:

      I’m glad to hear that you liked it, Kristen. I think I may be an outlier on this one. I think the forced quirkiness was a bigger problem that the sweetness, which was mostly a potential for sweetness at the point I gave up. I’d be surprised if the repetition gets edited out at such a late stage, but I don’t know how many changes are typical at that stage in commercial book editing. It would be interesting to compare!

  16. I loved this book (and just reviewed it on my blog). Many of the things that you disliked about this book are the very things that appealed to me. I love quirkiness and humor, and although it was over-the-top I believe that was deliberate and worked well. But it’s interesting to read a review with the opposite opinion!

    • Teresa says:

      I always think it’s interesting to see how what works for one reader is a total turn-off to another. I definitely can see why others would love this, but it didn’t quite hit the spot for me.

  17. 30GreatBooks says:

    I must agree with the post above mine – I quite liked The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise and also reviewed it on my blog. :) It reminded me of a Maeve Binchy novel, in how a singular event sheds light on individual hurts, ultimately bringing together a community in a sappy sweet happy ending. Personally, I like those kind of books, but they’re definitely not for everyone.

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