Book Review: True Biz by Sara Nović

Title: True Biz
Author: Sara Nović
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: April 5, 2022
Length: 386 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A transporting novel that follows a year of seismic romantic, political, and familial shifts for a teacher and her students at a boarding school for the deaf, from the acclaimed author of Girl at War.

True biz (adj/exclamation; American Sign Language): really, seriously, definitely, real-talk

True biz? The students at the River Valley School for the Deaf just want to hook up, pass their history final, and have doctors, politicians, and their parents stop telling them what to do with their bodies. This revelatory novel plunges readers into the halls of a residential school for the deaf, where they’ll meet Charlie, a rebellious transfer student who’s never met another deaf person before; Austin, the school’s golden boy, whose world is rocked when his baby sister is born hearing; and February, the headmistress, who is fighting to keep her school open and her marriage intact, but might not be able to do both. As a series of crises both personal and political threaten to unravel each of them, Charlie, Austin, and February find their lives inextricable from one another–and changed forever.

This is a story of sign language and lip-reading, cochlear implants and civil rights, isolation and injustice, first love and loss, and, above all, great persistence, daring, and joy. Absorbing and assured, idiosyncratic and relatable, this is an unforgettable journey into the Deaf community and a universal celebration of human connection. 

This book was an impulse read for me… and I’m so glad I gave in to my whims! True Biz was the Hello Sunshine book club pick for April, and while I don’t always follow celebrity book clubs, I find the Reese picks often include terrific stories I might not have come across otherwise. Such is the case with True Biz.

In this excellent novel, we follow the lives of the River Valley School for the Deaf’s headmistress, a hearing woman named February whose parents were deaf, as well as several of the school’s students. As the book opens, we learn that three students have disappeared from the school, leaving their cell phones behind. This is potentially a catastrophe, and a police search is launched. From this opening, we go back six months to learn how these events unfold.

The school, located in the Ohio rust belt, has served generations of deaf students, providing a safe haven, a home, a community, and a chance for education and language not available in mainstream programs. Some of the students come from families with long histories of deafness; for others, they’re the outliers in their families, and receive varying levels of support — or sometimes, almost none at all — before coming to RVSD.

While True Biz tells a compelling story about the lives of the characters and their personal stakes and struggles, it also provides a window into the Deaf community. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve been ignorant about many of the issues described in the book, and the most shocking and eye-opening for me was the discussion about language deprivation and cochlear implants.

As depicted by the characters in this book, while cochlear implants (technical devices that include a piece implanted in a baby or child’s head, that allows sound signals to bypass the ears and be received and decoded by the brain) are often seen as miraculous solutions to a problem, they represent something potentially cataclysmic to the Deaf community. As part of “fixing” deafness, the recommended approach for implanted children is to make them completely reliant on the implants so they’re forced to learn to interpret sounds and speak out loud. Often, this means denying them access to American Sign Language.

But CIs are often imperfect, and for some children, don’t work well enough for them to get by or truly learn to master verbal English. Without ASL, the children are essentially language deprived — they grow up without mastery of any language and suffer throughout their education and beyond because of this.

The other large issue with CIs seems to be the impact on the Deaf community itself. By “fixing” deafness, the devices (and those who advocate for them) seem to be pushing an agenda that erases the Deaf world, which is a culture unto itself, with a rich history and linguistic traditions.

I loved that the book includes illustrations of ASL words, as well as explanations of grammar and syntax, historical notes, and all sorts of other information about the Deaf community that I had little to no awareness of. As I said earlier, I’m somewhat embarrassed that so much of the cultural elements portrayed in this book are new to me, and that’s something I want to remedy.

A note on presentation and style: Initially, I was put off by the lack of quotation marks when characters speak — in general, a pet peeve of mine when it comes to fiction. Here, though, the stylistic choices appear to be deliberate. Depending on the placement and format of the different lines being spoken, we can tell by looking at the way the words are written whether the characters are speaking ASL or English, when a signing character finger-spells a word, and when a character misses a word that’s being spoken out loud or signed. It’s very effective and very clever.

I also want to point out that while I’ve mostly written about the issues depicted and brought to life in the book, the characters and plot are excellent and make for engrossing, compelling reading. In fact, my only complaint is that the ending felt too abrupt, as if the author simply decided to stop rather than go a little bit further in the timeline and wrap it up. I was left with questions about what comes next and feeling unsatisfied… but that’s okay.

The reading journey was enjoyable every step of the way, and I came to really care about the characters of True Biz. A lovely book — I highly recommend it.

Book Review: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Title: A Deadly Education (The Scholomance, #1)
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication date: September 29, 2020
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Lesson One of the Scholomance: Learning has never been this deadly.

A Deadly Education is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets.

There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere.

El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students. 

Unlike Hogwarts, Scholomance is a magical school that no one in their right mind would want to attend. Everything there wants to kill you, it seems. Evil magical creatures, known as maleficaria, lurk everywhere, drooling over the chance to eat some yummy young wizards. Students never go anywhere alone, and even with companions, death is literally around every corner.

Be careful taking food in the cafeteria line — it might be poisonous. Don’t be first or last into a room. Don’t sit near air vents. Try not to shower too often — there’s no telling what might come up through the drain.

And if you actually make it through all four years, there’s still no guarantee of survival. Graduation from Scholomance involves fighting your way out through a mass of deadly maleficaria waiting at the gate, and in typical years, only a fraction survive.

If all this sounds terrifying and exhausting… it is. Given the grisly death waiting around every corner, you might be wondering why this school exists in the first place and why any reasonable parent might send their children there. The answer is that while students’ lives are in danger 24/7 at the school, they’re still slightly more protected there (the school exists in an alternate dimension only barely tethered to the real world) than at home, since apparently young magical people are so packed full of deliciousness that they’d be under constant attack with little protection if they remained with their families.

El, short for Galadriel, seems to have an affinity for power and dark magic, and finds terrible spells of mass destruction at her fingertips all the time. She has to make a conscious effort to avoid doing harm. She’s also prickly and seems to give off an aura of evil, even though she’s not, so she’s pretty friendless, and that leaves her vulnerable.

That changes, though, when school hero Orion Lake saves her life a few times. Suddenly, the wealthy, established kids who belong to enclaves (big, secure settlements of magical people) want to include El in their circles, as a way of getting Orion on their sides. El is more interested in true allies than sucking up to get into an enclave, and she’s also more than a little irritated that everyone assumes Orion keeps saving her because they’re dating. So there’s that.

When I said that Scholomance is exhausting, that applies to the experience of reading it as well. It’s so unrelentingly claustrophic that the reading experience, for me at least, just isn’t fun. I got tired of chapter after chapter showing all the ways the students could die. Scholomance sounds like a terrible place, and there are practically no lighter moments within the book to break up all the looming deadly attacks.

The author does a good job of showing the awfulness of the experience of being there, but I can’t say that I needed to read quite that much about it. I didn’t feel like I got a good sense of what drives El or why she has such an affinity for darkness and destruction. We learn about a prophecy that says she’ll basically destroy the whole world, but I still felt like there was something about her personality that didn’t quite click. Likewise, we get to know some things about El’s eventual circle of friends, including Orion, but I didn’t get a good feel for who they actually are as people.

After publication, the author was called out for racial insensitivity due to a paragraph about the perils of dreadlocks. She’s apologized, and the paragraph will be revised in future printings. I believe her when she says it was unintentional, but it’s hard to understand how a book can go through the editing and publication process and not have something like that caught. (And really, if the same content was included, but with a reference to long hair instead of dreadlocks, it would have gotten the same point across without feeding into racial sterotypes.)

I had to wonder about a particular passage:

I got angry all over again, and I looked at him straight-on and hissed — when I’m really angry, it’s a hiss, even if there’re no actual sibilants involved — “We didn’t.”

Why did that passage catch my eye? Because I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, and recently highlighted this bit in my review of The Light Fantastic:

Another voice, dry as tinder, hissed, “You would do well to remember where you are.” It should be impossible to hiss a sentence with no sibilants in it, but the voice made a very good attempt.

Homage? Coincidence? I’m not sure, but it definitely jumped out at me.

Anyway…

While the book felt like a slog for at least the first half (seriously, the constant threat of death is TIRING), I eventually got caught up in the adventure enough to race through to the end.

A Deadly Education is book one of the Scholomance trilogy, with book two, The Last Graduate, due out in July 2021. At this point, I’m on the fence about whether to continue. I mean, probably yes? But I guess I prefer my magical boarding schools with at least an ounce of cheer. Scholomance is dark, dark, dark. I’ll need a good long break before I’d want to revisit it.