The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise was one of the most unexpected reading treats I've encountered in quite some time. Although it's a novel set in modern times, it has an otherworldly, fairytale-like feel because the action is centered around a group of residents who live in the Tower of London. Balthazar Jones is a Beefeater, one of the royal guards who is stationed to live in the Tower and guide tourists around its most infamous historical sights. He lives with his wife Hebe, who is one of two employees at the London Undergound's Office of Lost Property that deals sundry lost item ranging from glasses, books, and canes to tomato plants, magician's coffins, and locked safes. Balthazar and Hebe have had a strained marriage ever since the unexpected death of their young son several years earlier.
While the core of the novel deals with Balthazar and Hebe coming to grips with their grief, both individually and as a couple, the very real emotional heft of their struggle is nicely offset by their unique living situation and the quirky cast of supporting characters that surround them, including the lonely Tower clergyman who pines for a wife while secretly writing award-winning moralistic erotic fiction (the proceeds of which he devotes to a home for reformed prostitutes) and the coworker of Hebe's who likes to try on the various costumes that turn up in the lost and found--like a Darth Vader suit--and catches the eye of an unlikely suitor in the process. Balthazar himself has the odd hobby of collecting jars of rain, and can differentiate hundreds of kinds of rain by smell alone. Things get even more quirky when the queen sends a collection of zoo animals to live at the Tower in attempt to recreate the royal menagerie that existed there in centuries past.
I promise, it's all much more charming and whimsical than it may be coming across from my summary. Julia Stuart strikes a perfect balance between the serious themes in the book and their more magical context. I finished this around Christmas (so technically it belongs on this list) and don't think I could have picked a more enjoyable book for holiday time reading. The thought, "I just love this book" kept running through my head each time I picked it up.