'The Golden Compass' (or 'Northern Lights' as the version I read was titled) is the first book of Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy. It's the story of Lyra Belacqua, who spends most of her time playing around the Oxford college where she lives. But her playmates are being kidnapped, and her decision to rescue them draws her into much wider conflicts. Pullman shows such inventiveness in creating a new world for his story that it's sometimes hard to put the book down. But Pullman's books haven't had the same kind of bestselling success as some other books of a similar genre. I think part of the reason for this is that Pullman isn't really sure who he is writing for.
Lyra is around twelve years old, and the action in the book suggests that this is sort of age it is aimed at. But Pullman seems to have a negative take on a lot of things - religion, science, parenting, and I think this would make me wary of giving it as a gift to someone of that age. There's also a lot of nostalgia for a bygone age, implying an older audience. I think if I had read it when I was twelve then I would have found it very confusing. But if you are an older reader who has realised that some children's books don't seem so childish after all then you should give Pullman's work a try.