Category Archives: Book reviews

February 24, 2016

Anatomy of a PhD – analysing novels (Big Little Lies)

Filed under: Book reviews,PhD — Tags: , , , , — PD Martin @ 12:18 pm

Is there any ‘literary’ in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies?

Of course, one of the big requirements of a PhD in creative writing is to analyse sample texts in line with your exegesis topic. The texts I’ll be examining for ‘literary’ features are Peter Temple’s Truth, Martin Amis’s Night Train, Benjamin Black’s Christine Falls and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. However, I’m also expected to read widely in my genre (crime fiction), looking at both ‘popular’ crime novels and the more literary-styled crime novels. Which brings me to Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies.

While on the surface this book is ‘popular’ fiction – it’s written by a best-selling author, after all — when we break down some of the elements that are classed as “literary” Big Little Lies actually ticks some boxes.

While there are many characteristics that are considered ‘literary’ for the purpose of this blog I’ll be focusing on three of the elements I’m looking at for my PhD exegesis.

But first I’ll look at the big question…is Big Little Lies a crime novel? Of course, like many things it depends on your definition. It’s certainly not a police procedural (there is a police officer, but he’s only mentioned in passing), yet the mystery element is at the fore. Interestingly, however, the focus isn’t on whodunit, rather it’s on who’s dead? In the opening scenes we know someone has been murdered, then Moriarty takes us back six months. We get to know the characters, we connect with them, and with tiny excerpts from the ‘current’ time zone (in the form of ‘quotes’ from some of the secondary characters) we’re left wondering who is dead right up to the final pages of the book.

During her 2009 doctorate dissertation, Kelly Connelly looked at some of the different definitions of detective novels. Melling identifies three elements, “a criminal, a crime, and a detective” (Melling in Connelly v), Paul describes it as “a rational solution of a puzzle originating in a crime” (Paul in Connelly vi) and Sweeney’s broader definition describes it as “a ravelling and an unravelling”. Under both the second and third definitions, Big Little Lies is classed as a ‘detective’ novel and given Big Little Lies won the 2015 Davitt (Sisters in Crime) for Best Adult Novel, it’s clearly being ‘judged’ as a crime novel.

But back to the literary elements…

The role of characterisation compared to narrative form

One of the broader differentiations often attributed to a division between literary texts and popular fiction is that literary fiction is character-driven and genre fiction is plot-driven. This belief argues that literary fiction contains deeper characterisation and often a protagonist with a stronger sense of interiority, whereas popular fiction focuses more on the narrative structure and genre conventions with the plot more important to keep readers turning the page.

Big Little Lies drives the reader forward through both characterisation and plot. The characterisation is more in-depth than an ‘average’ popular fiction novel. We get to know the three main female characters — Jane, Celeste and Madeline — through their own point of view chapters. The writing style is alternating limited third (i.e. we change character perspectives (alternating) but it’s limited in that when we’re with each character we only have an insight into their thoughts). However, the narrative distance is extremely close, intimate, so the reader bonds with the characters. And with larger chunks of internal monologue (characters’ thoughts) it certainly delivers character interiority.

However, like many mystery novels the plot is also driving the reader forward. The twist of Moriarty’s Big Little Lies is that it’s not our burning desire to discover the killer that makes us turn the page, rather it’s our need to find out who’s dead. Because of this ‘need’ Big Little Lies is certainly plot-driven. However, the role of characterisation is also imperative.

Socio-political critique

Like many popular fiction genres, crime fiction is usually seen as pure entertainment or escapist reading, a genre that doesn’t challenge the reader or make any kind of societal commentary. Literary fiction, on the other hand, is often charged with not only raising deeper social issues, but bringing about change — or at least seeking to. When it comes to novels, there is a sense that the socio-political critique is the realm of “literature” and the “literary”.  However, it has been argued that popular fiction can, and often does, provide social commentary.

In addition to tackling a big issue in our society, Big Little Lies also comments on society, albeit a sub-set of society — school mums. As a school mum myself, I found the commentary in this regard fascinating. We see the clicks of the school mums, the helicopter parents in action, and a sense of competition bubbles under the surface and explodes on the pages.

However, it’s much deeper social commentary is around domestic violence. One of the characters has the ‘perfect’ life…however the reader finds out quite early on that her husband is physically abusive. Interestingly, Moriarty chooses to highlight violence within the higher socioeconomic group, a couple who are the school’s ‘IT’ couple. This perhaps talks to her readership, but it also opens up the issue of domestic violence within relationships we don’t necessarily expect, or that aren’t as widely publicised in the press.

Voice, language and style

While an exact description of the “literary” is difficult to come by and difficult to formulate, literary novels often also share a different approach to language compared to popular fiction, with literary novels often being described as unique in their language or written in a more poetic form. Other stylistics elements that are more likely to appear in ‘literary ’works are more internal monologue, dialogue that’s not obviously attributed to the speaker, and unreliable narrators.

While Big Little Lies does feature some pretty intensive internal monologue, none of the other literary characteristics are present. Certainly the language, while well-written, does not have any of the poetic or unique flair that’s usually associated with true literary novels.

The ending – narrative form and resolution

Finally one last note, which I’ve left to the end because it’s about the end…

Spoiler alert…

Literary novels are often marked by a lack of resolution, a lack of the happy ever after. If Moriarty’s novel followed a true literary narrative structure, one of her three main characters would have turned out to be the victim. Instead, the victim would probably win the most reader votes for “the person I’d like to see dead” and so in this way Big Little Lies conforms to the narrative structure of popular fiction.

So is it literary?

For the reasons noted above, Big Little Lies is not a literary crime novel. However, it does contain many features of a literary novel, and so if we consider the literary as more of a continuum Big Little Lies would perhaps be a few places further toward the literary than the ‘average’ crime novel.

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December 6, 2012

When the movie’s better than the book

Filed under: Book reviews,Murderati blogs — Tags: , , , — PD Martin @ 3:40 am

CB007116There have been posts on Murderati before about books being turned into films, including David Corbett’s recent post on Cloud Atlas.

However, I’m not setting myself such lofty heights (!). I’m looking at book versus film YA style. You see, the novel I’m currently working on is YA (primarily, at least) and so I’ve been reading in that genre, including some of the breakout hits. Two I want to talk about today are I am Four and The Hunger Games.

So, first off I should say that with I am Four my first exposure was the movie (loved it for the pure escapist, sci-fi, action-packed style that it was). And yes, I know it’s not high-brow. There, I said it. Problem was, the movie was obviously a part one, and ended with a cliff-hanger. So, I  Googled it to see when the next instalment would be out, only to discover there was nothing in the works. After dismissing it for many months (longer actually), I finally decided I wanted to find out what happened. Especially given I wanted to read in the YA space. And while I could have read I am Four, I cheated a little and jumped to the second book, The Power of Six. And this is when I discovered something interesting…the movie is actually better than the book (IMHO) – at least the movie was executed better than book 2 (and book 3, The Rise of Nine, for that matter). Now, we always hear about movies not living up to the expectation of the book, but this was reversed for me. I felt the characters were actually more well-developed in the movie than they were in books 2 and 3, and I found some of the writing mechanics a little clunky. That’s obviously with my author hat on, of course.

At the time I was reading The Power of Six, I was also doing the final stint of my Writing Australia tour, teaching writing. Anyway, one of my slides looked at what makes a book ‘good’. My list includes things like: engaging characters, well-developed plot, writing style and being a page-turner (to name a few).  Funny thing is, the I am Four books are complete page-turners. I finished them quickly and didn’t want to put them down. I may moan about the character development and writing style, but I ploughed through them, eager to lap up the next instalment. They were page turners and so using my own definition they are ‘good’. Yet they failed to tick any of the other boxes.

Move on to the next blockbuster film and trilogy…The Hunger Games. Again, I saw the movie first (really just to see what all the fuss was about) ages ago and then recently as part of my research decided to read the book. And this time I did read the first book. In this case, I have no strong opinion either way whether the book is better than the movie or vice versa. In fact, I think they’re probably pretty equal. But, once again I’m totally INTO the series. I finished the first book and downloaded the second straight away. I’m pathetically taken in by the romance element (I know, I’m hopeless!) and the sense of impending rebellion — I’m dying to see what happens next. I’m now 50% through book 2, Catching Fire. Sshh, don’t tell me what happens.

Another book-to-movie comparison that always comes to mind for me is Lord of the Rings. I actually think Peter Jackson did the most amazing job of adapting those novels. In fact, in some ways the movie version was an improvement (hope I don’t get hate mail over that one!). But seriously, who needed Tom Bombadil??

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October 20, 2010

Book review (The Hit List) and a recipe

Filed under: Book reviews — Tags: , , , , , — PD Martin @ 2:41 am

I read Chris Ryan’s The Hit List in August and decided to blog my review!  Especially because I really enjoyed the book.

I actually picked it out at the airport (had forgotten the book I was currently reading…ahhh!!) and wanted something that was action/adventure with a spy or military feel. I haven’t read anything in this genre for ages, but given my new series is going to have loads more action and covert operations I thought I’d better see what’s ‘out there’ at the moment.

The Hit List was fast-paced with just the right amount of description (sometimes these types of books can get bogged down in details of standard procedures, types of guns and ammunition, etc.). While I like them to include some of this info, it can be hard to find the right balance and I think Chris Ryan excelled with the balance.

I would recommend The Hit List to anyone who likes action/adventure/thriller with that government or elite military thread!


I recently contributed a recipe for a fundraising cookbook, Snap4kids. I’ll post that recipe (easy Tira Misu) another day, but also found another yummy recipe last week for an orange and blueberry cake/bread. Don’t think I can post the exact recipe (copyright) because it’s from the recipe book that came with my latest toy/gadget, my Vitamix. It was very exciting though…I ground the flour myself from wheat grains in the Vitamix and then made the treat fast. Not much sugar, low GI, whole grains, etc. etc. Unfortunately I ate it almost as fast as I made it :)

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November 20, 2009

Review: Exit Strategy by Kelley Armstrong

Filed under: Book reviews — Tags: , , — PD Martin @ 9:50 pm

In this week’s blog I’m going to review a book I finished a couple of days ago, Exit Strategy by Kelley Armstrong.

Kelley Armstrong is better known for her paranormal books and series (including the Women from the Otherworld Series), but Exit Strategy is about a hitman…well, actually a few hitmen, a couple of hitwomen and a serial killer.

The main character, Nadia Stafford, is an ex-cop turned hitwoman/vigilante. Of course, being a hitwoman isn’t a position of natural reader empathy or identification (I’m assuming anyone reading this isn’t a hitman/hitwoman)! Armstrong counteracts this with Nadia’s difficult childhood, time in law enforcement and the fact that she only accepts jobs in which a bad guy is the target.

I enjoyed the book and it certainly kept me reading, especially the last 100 pages or so when I could feel the tension rising and the resolution just a heartbeat – or a 100 pages – away. However, I found myself caught up and annoyed by the dialogue, which included lots of unnecessary question marks and full stops. I’m not normally a stickler for this type of thing, but about half way through the book it started to annoy me. A section of dialogue might say ‘Hurt? Maybe. Figured it out? Yes.’ While this may work well if used sparingly, this style of dialogue was throughout the book, including lots of question marks where it wasn’t a question at all.

Despite this, it was a very good read and I love the concept in general – someone in law enforcement who couldn’t take the injustice of the justice system any more.

Have you read it? What did you think?

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