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Books you need to read this January

BY James Walton

10th Jan 2023 Must Reads

Books you need to read this January

A true crime author digs into a grisly cult in our first book pick of the year by Janice Hallett, while Robert Twigger goes adventuring in the Lake District

The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels

In recent years, Janice Hallett has been building a reputation not just as a new thriller writer, but, more usually, as a writer of a new kind of thriller. By now you might have thought there wasn’t much more to be done with the genre. Hallett, though, has managed it—by doing away with conventional narrative altogether and instead presenting the raw material in the shape of interview transcripts, text messages and email exchanges.  

In theory, this could lead to a rather dry read. In practice, Hallett still provides all you’d want from a great thriller. Along with an ever-twisting plot, we get full sense of the characters and a deep plunge into a world normally hidden from the rest of us. And online, of course, it’s even easier for people to not be what they seem… 


This true crime story explores a grisly London-based cult

In this case, the hidden world is that of true crime writing. The protagonist is Amanda Bailey who lets us into the not-always-honourable tricks of her trade as she attempts to discover what happened two decades ago when a London-based cult persuaded teenage Holly and her boyfriend that their baby was the Antichrist who needed to be sacrificed for the good of humanity. In the event, thanks to Holly, the baby survived, causing the cult members to commit suicide. 

But, as you might imagine, was this what really happened? And whatever did, was it a matter of emotional manipulation, the genuinely supernatural or something darker and scarier still? 

"The overall result is a richly rewarding, blisteringly clever read that raises questions about human gullibility"

To find out, Amanda must first find the baby (adopted soon afterwards): no simple task, given that anybody with any information tends to die suddenly in mysterious circumstances. There’s also the fact that she has a rival baby-seeker—a former journalistic colleague called Oliver. 

Not everything about the book quite works. There are, for example, just a few too many plot strands, and even by the standards of hopeless fictional males, Oliver is a somewhat unbelievable pillock. Nevertheless, if you keep your wits about you, the overall result is a richly rewarding, blisteringly clever read that raises questions about human gullibility in all its forms, while still moving forward propulsively. 

The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels

Buy The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels by Janice Hallett (Viper, £16.99)

36 Islands: In Search of the Wonders of the Lake District

“Who doesn’t have a thing about islands?” writes Robert Twigger on page one of his terrific new book. The way he sees it, they haunt our imagination as places of opportunity to escape our everyday lives and have new adventures.  

In this, as he acknowledges, he’s been influenced since boyhood by Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons novels, where the children get away from adults and find freedom on the islands of the Lake District—all 36 of which he now sets out to visit. 

In the past, Twigger has written acclaimed travelogues about the Himalayas, the Rocky Mountains and the Sahara. With 36 Islands, he brings the same wide-ranging curiosity and intelligence to bear as he walks, paddles and kayaks through some of Britain’s most stunning, and sometimes still unspoiled, scenery.  

"Islands haunt our imagination as places of opportunity to escape our everyday lives and have new adventures"

He also takes full advantage of the “deceleration of time” that comes with mostly solitary journeying to ponder—among many other things—life as he approaches 60 determined not to turn into a curmudgeon (something, happily for the reader, he doesn’t always achieve). Meanwhile, we learn a lot about Ransome too: one of the few British authors to have played chess with Vladimir Lenin.  

Here, Twigger and his occasional travelling companion Mark are going from Ullswater to Windermere—a journey made rather trickier by Twigger’s plan to walk all the way dragging their stuff in a trolley, and avoiding commercial campsites for more rugged spots. Until that is, after a miserable night under wet canvas, they realise how much trudging still lies ahead… 

The Lake District

The Lake District is full of wonders!

“The next morning, amid more rain, we packed our cumbersome belongings. There was a campsite marked on the map a mile or two away and we speculated that it might have a bus stop, as it lay on the Kirkstone Pass road to Windermere. A certain desperation raised the idea of a potential bus stop to the level of a mythical water hole in the desert, or a gas station on Route 66 when your tank is showing empty.  

This is one of the things I love about such trips as the one Mark and I were making: there were no rules and quite easily you could get into difficulties largely of your own making. It was like putting an adventure filter on modern life. We could have driven from Ullswater to Windermere, we could have taken a taxi. But by insisting on the loopy use of the trolley I’d elevated the journey into one of drama needing resolution.  

Wobbling along the rocky track through the campsite, we mocked the sensible campers for paying £10 or more just to pitch their tents and use the toilet block. Suckers! We looked at them hoping for some kind of recognition of our superior status, but it was too early and too drizzly; most were loitering inside the open flaps of their tents while brushing their teeth and looking disconsolately out on the Lake District in its most natural state, ie, sopping wet.

"Our trip had been elevated into something teetering on the brink of disaster"

I went into the campsite office and asked if there was a bus stop nearby. There was! Only 100 metres away. And the kind, smiling woman also gave me a BUS TIMETABLE. This was, emotionally speaking, as exciting as getting a lift after nine hours of hitching, or finding that a train you had expected to have left is late and you can easily catch it. Our trip had been elevated into something teetering on the brink of disaster (walking 18 miles while dragging an infernal trolley over a high pass in rain-drenched fog)—a small disaster admittedly, but one we’d just averted by the kind offices of the campsite lady and the bus timetable, which I felt awfully clever for asking for and getting.  

At the bus stop: two lads perhaps a third our age, respectful, thoughtful, studenty types, engaged with us in a discussion of the odd fact that the bus stopped at the same stop on the same side whatever direction it was coming in, the road being so narrow. That they knew the bus routine was very reassuring to me, as every time I catch an unfamiliar bus I’m assailed by the worry that it will drive by and ignore me. Often I will step into the road moments before a bus cruises to a halt—just to add extra weight to my flagging-down gestures.  

It’s the same sort of micro-anxiety I get when a train is sitting at a platform and the sign says it is my train—but how do I know for sure?”  

36 Islands

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