December 5th, 2012


Book 157: Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo by Julia Stuart

UK cover
Book 157: Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo .
Author: Julia Stuart, 2010.
Genre: Contemporary. Comedy/Drama. Animals.
Other Details: Paperback. 325 pages.

Balthazar Jones has lived and worked in the Tower of London for the past eight years. Being a Beefeater is no easy job, and when Balthazar is tasked with setting up an elaborate menagerie of the many exotic animals gifted to the Queen, life at the Tower gets all the more interesting. Penguins escape, giraffes go missing, and the Komodo dragon sends innocent tourists running for their lives. But that chaos is nothing compared to what happens when his wife, Hebe, makes a surprise announcement. - synopsis from author's website.

US cover
Published in USA as The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, this was a delightful novel packed with quirky characters, both human and animal, titbits of history and genuinely moving stories about a group of people working and living within the Tower of London.

It was a novel with a warm heart and mixed comedy and drama perfectly with some scenes providing laugh out loud moments while others, such as Jones' inability to cry over the death of his son, were tender and bitter sweet. The misadventures that take place within the Tower are complimented by Hebe Jones' work at the Lost Property Department of the London Underground. It was a comforting, cosy read for a Sunday afternoon and I finished it in a single sitting. I'd not heard of Julia Stuart before spotting this at the library though plan on reading more of her work.

The cover art for both UK and US editions convey that sense of whimsy that characterises this novel.

Julia Stuart's web page for 'The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise'.
  • krinek

23. Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

Title: Started Early, Took My Dog
Author: Kate Atkinson
Publisher: Back Bay Books
Year: 2011
# of pages: 371
Date read: 6/6/2012
Rating: 3*/5 = good


"It's a day like any other for Tracy Waterhouse, working security at the local shopping center to supplement her pension from the police force. Then she makes a purchase she hadn't bargained on. One moment of madness is all it takes for Tracy's humdrum world to be turned upside down, the tedium of everyday life replaced by fear and danger and the first sparks of love.

Witnesses to Tracy's Faustian exchange are Tilly, an elderly actress teetering on the brink of her own disaster, and Jackson Brodie, the reluctant detective whose own life has been stolen and who has now been hired to find someone else's. Variously accompanied, pursued, or haunted by neglected dogs, unwanted children, and keepers of dark secrets, soon all three will learn that the past is never history - and that no good deed goes unpunished." -- from the inside flap

My thoughts:

This was a good mystery with seemingly unimportant threads which prove useful in the end. I look forward to reading the first book in the series, Case Histories.
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24. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

Title: Magic for Beginners
Author: Kelly Link
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Year: 2005
# of pages: 271
Date read: 6/20/2012
Rating: 4*/5 = great


"Magic for Beginners is many things. Sweetly strange. Liberally scattered with brilliance. A magical lens on the stuff of life that moves and makes us. These are stories of the real world made beautifully unreal: of transformation, love, zombies and brothers fired from cannons. They are the stories you have been waiting to read." -- from the back cover

My thoughts:

I enjoyed this collection of short stories in which the odd and familiar live side by side. Some of my favorite stories were "Catskin" and "Magic for Beginners."


9780130911643Man, am I behind in chronicling books.  Fortunately, my next is short 'n' sweet: Michiko Yusa's Japanese Religious Traditions is a brief chronological survey of what it says on the tin, from Japan's early animism to modern events up to the Aum Shinrikyo Sarin gas attack.  It's rather small, little more than 100 pages, and, I imagine, part of a larger series on world religions.  It does, though, give a good overview of the folk beliefs that would become Shinto, of the differences between Japan's major schools of Buddhism, and of interesting lesser-known facts, such as how the restrictive policies and later financial mismanagement of the Tokugawa shogunate led to a rise in popularity of Chrstianity among the increasingly-impoverished samurai class.  Not completely comprehensive, but lucid and useful, and recommended if you need quick information for a report.
book and cup

#124 At Mrs Lippincote's - Elizabeth Taylor (1947)


Back in January when the Librarything Virago group read At Mrs Lippincote’s I didn’t read it as it had only been a year since I read it previously. However I had wanted to read all Elizabeth Taylor’s novels in 2012, her centenary year – so this is the first of two Elizabeth Taylor novels I will be reading during December.

At Mrs Lippincote’s was Elizabeth Taylor’s first published novel, when it came out in 1945 – Elizabeth Taylor was a woman in her thirties, a wife and mother, a woman who had already had an adulterous relationship. These things are among some of the key ingredients to all of Elizabeth Taylor’s writing, and in At Mrs Lippincote’s Elizabeth Taylor sort of sets out her stall – her world and it’s everyday preoccupations is one readers of her work return to again and again. This is a novel that has often said to be really quite autobiographical, in Julia, we have a character in who, I think Elizabeth Taylor could see herself. Yet Julia isn’t automatically a likeable character (although I found I liked her much better this time of reading). I like to believe that she was an exaggerated facet of just one side of Elizabeth Taylor, after all, we all have sides to our natures that are less attractive than others.

The novel opens as Julia her husband Roddy and their child move, along with Roddy’s cousin Eleanor, to a new house. The house is not their own, but belongs to Mrs Lippincote, a woman whom they have yet to meet. Roddy in the RAF is stationed nearby and has requested that his family join him. Julia feels the strangeness of living in someone else’s house right away, and this sense of displaced unease pervades the whole novel. Julia is not particularly warm, but she is very believable – a not very happy woman, married to a conventional man, Julia is not always conventional herself, she finds the things she must do difficult at times, and sometimes says exactly what she thinks. Elizabeth Taylor gives free rein to her brilliant wit in the terrible things Julia says, especially about Eleanor’s friend Mr Aldridge who has received a terminal diagnosis. School teacher, Eleanor – Roddy’s cousin, following a breakdown has been living with the couple and their son Oliver (a brilliant child character who reads English classics far beyond the scope of most children his age). Eleanor’s dissatisfaction with life drives her into the company of a group of Marxists, who she feels at home with, and yet feels unable to commit to fully.

I think this extract goes a long way to explain the complicated state of play with Julia, Roddy and Eleanor.

“I should like to meet this kind Wing Commander,” said Julia. “Now, he really is high up, isn’t he?” Eleanor, who thought this vagueness about rank an affectation looked sideways at Roddy. “He’s the boss, my dear,” said Roddy, with simple devotion, so that Julia half expected him to cross himself.
Eleanor thought what a splendid thing it would have been for Roddy to have had some woman behind him to make his career her life’s work, and to be an inspiration and incentive to him. ‘To understand him, in fact,’ she added grimly for her own benefit. ‘That is what spinsters in books are always thinking about other women’s husbands.’ She tried not to behave like a spinster in a book. Her sense of humour saved her she believed. She put up a good fight and fell into only the less obvious traps, but she bothered a little more about her dignity, and her position, than do the majority of married women, and betrayed herself by what Roddy called her ‘little ways’, by which he meant the trivial comforts, consolations, cups of tea and patent medicines, small precautions against draughts and a gentle fussing which grows insidiously upon and characterises those who have neither husband nor children to cherish and only themselves to put first.”

Roddy’s boss the Wing Commander is rather taken by Julia, the two strike up and odd friendship, he drops in to tea, they discuss the Brontes, and later young Oliver becomes great friends with Felicity the Wing Commander’’ daughter. Julia flirts, fairly safely with, first the Wing Commander, and then Mr Taylor – a restaurateur she and Roddy had known slightly in London. Yet surprisingly it is ultimately not Julia’s loyalty that is in question. At Mrs Lippincote’s is not my favourite Elizabeth Taylor novel, but it is a wonderfully complex and yet subtle exploration of middle class people during wartime.

#7 - Interventios: A Life in War and Peace, Kofi Annan

Title: Interventions: A Life in War and Peace
Author: Kofi Annan
Rating: 5/5
  Kofi Annan is one of the most talented people out there, and one of the most moral and interesting ones, too. I hadn't heard much about him before, and perhaps much haven't, either. He was secretary-general of the United Nations from 1997 to 2007, that means two mandates, each of five years, and he was before involved with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, also part of the UN, and activism in Ghana during his coming of age, when his country was fighting for its freedom, and he is now involved on the Syrian civil war as the envoy to a peace collaboration between the factions involved in the war. His leaving of the United Nations was one somewhat bitter, with the United States not really fond of him after he condemned the Iraq War in the end of 2004, saying it was illegal regarding the Charter of the UN (which it was) and so on. His life is one of the most impressive ones I've ever heard about and I now seriously hero-worship him. He has got one hability to handle diplomatic situations that gave me the chills with apparent calm and rationale and he brought the development agenda to the front of the UN. He was the one who started the Millenium Development Goal and the fight against HIV/AIDS and created the NUPD and so on, something I greatly admire. Through this book I found myself understanding a lot more about the deeper issues of lots of relative, actual conflicts including the Arab Spring, Syria and Africa, as well as the war on terror, Iraq and Afghanistan, together with development, the post-Cold War wars and other modern world dilemmas. I found myself compelled by his writing and following one clear line of thought and understanding completely not only what happened, but why happened and what motivated the conflict and/or the resolutions and the acts made from the different parties. I got to know Annan and his ambitions and thoughts and his morale. I became fascinated by him.  It's one fascinating book for those interested in how the countries work and on diplomacy and the UN or simply to read about some really impressive arguments and discussions that he lead or just to know about him and how a person passionate about his work can do anything, including reform the UNited Nations. It is simply impressive, what he has done, and equally impressive how he did it and how he put it into just 400 pages and in a way that is understandable and relatable. Just awesome.