23rd January 1998 at 00:00
UNQUIET SPIRITS. By K M Peyton, Scholastic Pounds 4.99. THE RAINBOW TRAVELLER. By Karen Hayes, Dolphin Pounds 3.99

OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES. By Dennis Hamley, Scholastic Pounds 5.99. WANTING TO BELONG. By Mike Jenkins, Seren Pounds 5.95. The income gap is just one of the themes in the teenage novels selected by Gerry Byrne

Winter nights demand something to curl up with: a ghostly love story, perhaps, a tale of love across the centuries, or a yawning social divide. Or something more realistic, portraying Britain in the Nineties with its Third World-sized income gap?

Unquiet Spirits is a ghost story in which the contemporary mismatched love between uprooted, streetwise Madeleine and Simon, heir to a crumbling estate, echoes the doomed romance of their earlier Elizabethan namesakes. It is saved from sickliness by the tough earthiness of the heroine who negotiates the transition from Dalston street-raker to canny businesswoman and effective mistress of the great estate with shrewdness and wry humour. A heart-warming fairy-tale.

The rainbow traveller of Karen Hayes's title is Red, who travels with his mother in a converted double decker. When their convoy settles temporarily in the town where Hannah goes to school, love is soon in the offing. But the couple are forced to meet behind the backs of Hannah's wealthy, bigoted parents, and all does not go smoothly.

The novel charts the painful minutiae of everyday prejudice, including, Hannah is forced to recognise, her own. Hayes is good on the souring effects of prejudice and distrust even on good souls. There are no simple good victims and bad persecutors, and not quite a fairy-tale ending either.

If you like your tales grim, then Out of the Mouths of Babes may be for you. It examines how accident of birth is as potent in determining an infant's destiny as any fairy's cradle-side curse. Julian is born to rule and supplements his inherited advantages with unearned accolades. Gary is born to nothing, to a single mother on benefit, and the little he has - his natural talent - is robbed from him, suppressed and distorted. Griselda straddles these two worlds, knowing both privilege and hardship, seeing something of herself in both.

This is a bleak but convincing picture of the long trail of wreckage left by greed and inherited advantage. There's little doubt where Hamley's sympathies lie.

The stories in Mike Jenkins's Wanting to Belong also deal with contemporary have-nots, in this case Welsh ones. Jenkins is a poet and a teacher and these stories have more of the flavour of his day job. But we're reminded of a good teacher, who keeps the class interested and even has time for the slow. The tales are pacey, but somehow too concerned to understand the minds of their young protagonists to tell a good story.

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