THE GOOD: Gone Girl (2012) by Gillian Flynn
The story: Gone Girl is a tense and fast-paced psychological thriller centred around a damaged, destructive marriage. It opens as Nick Dunne has just discovered his wife, Amy, has disappeared in strange circumstances on the couple's fifth wedding anniversary. As Nick looks back over the history of his relationship with Amy, the narrative switches between his perspective and Amy's diary entries, which paint a very different picture, particularly of recent events. It quickly becomes apparent that all is not as it seems - Nick, who is immediately the prime suspect, admits he is lying to the police; Amy's diary grows darker and darker. Has Nick murdered Amy? If she is still alive, then where is she? And does anybody know (or, indeed, tell) the truth about the pair's stormy, passionate relationship?
The verdict: It's quite difficult to discuss this book properly because there are so many unexpected twists. I deliberately avoided reading spoilers beforehand, and I'm very glad I didn't know what was going to happen - it made the whole experience so much more thrilling. Flynn plays with the reader's perceptions brilliantly, making you constantly switch sides, question the veracity of both Nick and Amy's accounts, and try to second-guess the characters. I loved and hated Amy (an utterly brilliant creation) in equal measure, and absolutely loathed and despised the misogynistic Nick - but no matter what awful things the protagonists did, I was always fascinated by their actions, and desperate to know what would happen next. In places, I could barely stand the tension and had to restrain myself from skipping to later parts of the book to see what would happen - but the restraint was worth it, because the ending is fantastic. It's been a while since I read a book I liked this much that was also so entertaining and readable. Gone Girl is an easy read, and you don't need to be concentrating on every tiny detail to understand what happens, but it's still very well-written and ingeniously put together. It's a superior example of the mystery/thriller genre and the word 'compelling' doesn't do it justice. As long as you don't mind reading about deceitful, tricky characters who you will dislike at least some of the time - or the awful title (Amy is in her late thirties so patently not a girl!) - this is a highly recommended read.
THE BAD: Empress of Rome (2012) by Kate Quinn
The story: This is a semi-sequel to Kate Quinn's debut novel, Mistress of Rome, with the main characters being the children of the first book's protagonists. Having grown up in Britannia, Vix (son of Thea and Arius) returns to Rome at the age of nineteen, where he becomes entangled with Sabina (daughter of Lepida). This sets the scene for an epic tale which has these two characters at its heart, and also prominently features scheming empress Plotina and soft-hearted tribune Titus.
The verdict: Let me explain why I'm categorising this as 'bad'... I didn't think it was awful, but I have really enjoyed Quinn's previous books set in ancient Rome - which perhaps contributed to a certain level of anticipation/expectation for this one - and this was a letdown in comparison. It simply didn't grab my attention in the same way, and somehow I couldn't get into the story. Quinn's writing is as enjoyable as ever, but I've always seen these books as fun romps rather than literary novels, and the prose really needs to be wrapped around an exciting plot. I wasn't enormously keen on Vix or Sabina and didn't care much for their romance, and while Plotina was well-portrayed as a devious and powerful character, she lacked that deliciously hateful edge that characterised (for example) Lepida and Domitian in Mistress. I can't say I was truly rooting for any of the characters, but there wasn't anyone I loved to hate either. With the other books, I was gripped throughout and was constantly kept entertained by twists and cliffhangers, but here there were chapters upon chapters that dragged and seemed to be either dull, or full of pointless developments that didn't come to anything. Empress of Rome was diverting enough in parts, but where its predecessors were juicy and action-packed, this book felt a little bit... limp. If you haven't heard of Kate Quinn before, please don't let this review put you off her other books, because they really are a lot of fun. I just wouldn't recommend this one.
THE AVERAGE: The Light Between Oceans (2012) by M.L. Stedman
The story: The Light Between Oceans is a simple yet almost ingeniously original tale about, as the book's blurb has it, 'right and wrong, and how they sometimes look the same'. Set in 1920s Australia, it is the story of Tom Sherbourne, a solitary war veteran turned lighthouse-keeper, and Isabel, his young wife. Following a necessarily brief courtship in the small seaside community of Partaguese, Tom takes Isabel to his lighthouse on isolated Janus Rock, where she dreams - in vain, as it turns out - of starting a family. After the third in a series of devastating miscarriages, Isabel and Tom spot a washed-up boat which turns out to contain a man's body and a baby girl, only a few months old. Convinced her mother must have drowned, they make the fateful decision to raise the child, who they name Lucy, as their own. The story goes on to explore how the truth comes to light and how Isabel and Tom, along with the others affected by their deception, cope with the consequences of their decision.
The verdict: There wasn't really anything wrong with this book, but I didn't find it enormously exciting or memorable. That could be because I'm not the ideal target audience: mothers (or those who are particularly maternal) would probably be able to relate to both Isabel and Hannah, Lucy's real mother, with greater ease. I did think the writing was clumsy in places - the random switching between past and present tense always irritated me and didn't feel like it had been executed well at all. For the most part, though, The Light Between Oceans was a well-written and quietly engaging story. The characters are nicely drawn, with just enough detail to make them believable while retaining something of an enigmatic edge. I can see this book being a big hit because it blends themes that will appeal to the chick-lit market (marriage, motherhood, love and loss) with what might be called literary aspirations (historical setting, intelligent prose and a rather nice, non-chick-lit-looking cover design). It might deserve a couple of lazy afternoons' worth of your time, but I wouldn't bother bumping it up to the top of your to-read list.