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Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

IF YOU’RE fed up with the usual crop of paperbacks and looking for something different, then Julia Stuart’s Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo could be right up your street. Just don’t let the title put you off because it is, in fact, very good.

Set in the present day, it sees Balthazar Jones, Beefeater, become Balthazar Jones, Zookeeper, when Buckingham Palace decides to move the Queen’s exotic animals from London Zoo to the Tower of London.

R-i-g-h-t, I hear the sceptic in you say. However, keeping animals in the Tower isn’t exactly a novel idea (pardon the pun) because strange as it might seem, the London fortress was once home to the Royal Menagerie – as Balthazar explains to his young son Milo. And it’s partly due to little-known facts like this, that Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo is such a delightful read.

It’s also well written and, at times, highly amusing. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that you wouldn’t be the first reader to find yourself sporting a silly grin from time to time. And uplifting as this most certainly is, Balthazar Jones… isn’t by any means a frivolous read for it tackles the painful subject of losing a young child, something Stuart handles sensitively and with amazing insight.

And her characters are bold, if occasionally a little eccentric – either that or I’ve led a very sheltered life. Yet one thing’s for certain, I’ll never look at a Beefeater in quite the same way again! And where on earth did Stuart find such delightful names?

As well as Balthazar, there’s his exotic Greek wife, Hebe, whose work in the London Underground Lost Property Office brings her in contact with a host of incidental characters – people like Frederik Kjeldsen, whom she reunites with the false eye he’d lost in a freak accident on the Tube, and Reginald Perkins, whose wooden urn containing the ashes of his beloved wife, Clementine, eventually forces Hebe to confront Balthazar’s grief.

Then there’s Hebe’s friend and colleague, Valerie Jennings and the new man in her life, tattooed ticket inspector, Arthur Catnip; the Tower’s Reverend Septimus Drew, aka Vivienne Ventress, writer of erotic fiction; and last but by no means least, Mrs Cook, although to find out more about Mrs Cook, you’ll have to read Balthazar Jones… for yourself.

To be honest, I didn’t think this was my kind of book but I was completely wrong. From start to finish, it’s an absolute delight and I enjoyed every comical, poignant and heart warming moment. I think you will too.