Living in the past

26th September 2003 at 01:00
Tom Deveson explores historic tales of love, death, rivalry and intrigue

THE TEMPESTUOUS VOYAGE OF HOPEWELL SHAKESPEARE. By Sophie Masson. Hodder Children's Books pound;5.99.

STRATFORD BOYS. By Jan Mark. Hodder Children's Books pound;12.99.

AT THE SIGN OF THE SUGARED PLUM. By Mary Hooper. Bloomsbury Children's Books pound;5.99.

TELL THE MOON TO COME OUT. By Joan Lingard. Puffin pound;4.99.

Sophie Masson's young Hopewell Shakespeare is a distant cousin of the famous writer. He "couldn't be a Puritan if he tried", and loves the playhouse. He runs away from his wheelwright apprenticeship, quarrels with his girlfriend, loses his money to a cutpurse and puts to sea with the privateer Captain Wolfe. Then he realises the crew are trying to reach a Lost Island where the Lord of Alchemists lives.

On the island people are transformed and pictures come to life. There is treachery and pursuit, and some bloody violence and visions of other realms before the happy end after Hopewell learns "to mix the dark with the night".

Echoes of Shakespeare's The Tempest, Twelfth Night and Richard Wagner's music-drama Parsifal are enjoyable, but the book doesn't convincingly accommodate all the secret doors, overheard conspiracies, coincidental meetings, metamorphoses and gender-bendings - devices that work on the Shakespearean stage, but here seem more like contrivance. Voyages to new countries of the mind don't need to be literal - there was enough magic in the reality of Elizabethan England.

Jan Mark realises this beautifully. Her version of Shakespeare's early family background - with an irritable and contentious father, annoying brother, tempestuous sister and pregnant mother - is entirely plausible.

So too is William's life as a young glover learning his trade in Stratford, with rivalries between uneducated craftsmen and grammar school boys, brief moments of anger against snotty gentry smoking tobacco, and religious conflicts about purgatory. It all creates a picture of provincial England in 1580.

William starts writing a play based on an old manuscript. There are delightful scenes of the casting, the read-through and rehearsals, the arguments about length of parts and the use of Latin.

The youthful author has to think about how to make comedy work and the collaborative nature of drama. The language is rich and unpatronising, with some good pastiche verse and some authentically rude jokes. Serious themes emerge and life itself is more complex than William has managed to get on paper, but he's not expecting to write another play. As this witty, well-researched and intelligent book hints, there are other temptations for an active young man.

Mary Hooper takes us into the middle of the following century. Hannah goes to London at the time of the plague to work with her sister making sweetmeats such as candied angelica and frosted rose petals (recipes are given).

Weekly instalments of her story are backed by quotations from Samuel Pepys.

Hannah encounters London streets, sights, shops and, especially, smells.

There is plenty of teenage talk about fashions and falling in love with a local apprentice. She doesn't shield us from words such as whore, pox and bastards.

The contrast of youthful vigour and excitement with the onset of death and the gradual increase in horror and fear is well done. Red crosses, rumbling plague carts, cynical gravediggers, the tolling of bells, mistreated corpses and perfunctory funerals increase in frequency.

The dialogue sometimes wobbles between ancient and modern idioms, and the book lacks true emotional depth, despite the poignant death of Hannah's best friend. However, it's a good introduction to the events of a fateful year.

Joan Lingard shows that Spain in 1939 was also a place of danger, from political violence as well as disease. Nick comes from Scotland to find his father who went missing during the Civil War.

He hides in many places, from flea-ridden goat sheds to sweaty train carriages, and is chased by wolfhounds and passed on from secret address to address.

This chain forms the plot while the central issue is his growing love for Isabel, the daughter of a Franco-supporting civil guard who leaves her unhappy home to accompany him.

Here is a country where everyone is an enemy until proved otherwise. We hear of republican atrocities against churches and religion and see nationalist brutality directly, with victims beaten by police and a population cowed by the victors' triumphalism.

The young couple's arguments are drawn in fairly simple terms, but the book's true message is one about trust - when even a meal of cheese and olives is a luxury, people need to recognise one another's humanity. The author convinces us that this is a vital lesson for teenagers past, present and future.

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