Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf
For a read about grief through the plot points of a murder mystery, for colorful characters who are lots of shades of morally gray, for a lot of words you never knew (but will after reading this!)
noun: a person or thing that precipitates an event or change
When Najwa Bakri walks into her first Scrabble competition since her best friend’s death, it’s with the intention to heal and move on with her life. Perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to choose the very same competition where said best friend, Trina Low, died. It might be even though Najwa’s trying to change, she’s not ready to give up Trina just yet.
But the same can’t be said for all the other competitors. With Trina, the Scrabble Queen herself, gone, the throne is empty, and her friends are eager to be the next reigning champion. All’s fair in love and Scrabble, but all bets are off when Trina’s formerly inactive Instagram starts posting again, with cryptic messages suggesting that maybe Trina’s death wasn’t as straightforward as everyone thought. And maybe someone at the competition had something to do with it.
As secrets are revealed and the true colors of her friends are shown, it’s up to Najwa to find out who’s behind these mysterious posts—not just to save Trina’s memory, but to save herself.
If you’re a person who hears that this is a YA murder mystery based at a Scrabble tournament and thinks “OOOOOH I might like that!!” then yes, you probably will. So if you’re already interested, you can probably stop here and just go read the book itself. 🙂
There’s kind of a twist to this at the end, if I can call it that? I think those that are in it for the murder mystery element should be aware that while it is the main moving plot point of the novel as they investigate each suspect, it’s kind of a light touch. The grittiness and darkness comes from the grief the characters deal with, rather than some kind of creepy malicious danger (though there is some of that, too). Also be aware that this is a young adult novel with young adult characters. So they do make stupid decisions. There’s a conversation early on that’s essentially “Should we tell the police?” “No way, they wouldn’t take us seriously / wouldn’t do anything! WE have to solve this one!” which, as always, made me roll my eyes. Not that it’s necessarily inaccurate of how the characters would think, but sigh. Can we just trust adults sometimes maybe?
Each suspect we learn more about has their own shade of grief over Trina’s death — or complete lack of grief in its own right. This is a really accessible showcase of how it looks different for everyone, especially in one particular moment when Trina’s boyfriend is criticized for dating (very publicly) a bunch of other girls in the year since Trina’s death. Hand in hand with this is Najwa’s struggles with her mental health. There’s some light commentary about how even just talking about it with her parents or friends is difficult because in Malaysia, mental health is stigmatized. It makes it difficult to get therapy or other help, and it’s generally considered shameful to talk about. I can’t speak to how accurate that is, but I know it’s pretty common in many countries for that to be the case.
One smaller yet important element of this that I loved is how Najwa’s belief is inherent in the novel. She’s Muslim, and we see her pray, or mention fixing her hijab, or keeping distance between her and a boy, etc. But the story isn’t about her being Muslim — it’s just another part of who she is. It’s not always common to find stories where a Muslim character isn’t telling a story about what it’s like to be Muslim, so I love that this one is a story all its own with a Muslim girl leading in it.
And yes, of course, there are a TON of new words you’ll learn in here. They were scattered liberally throughout. Anytime I knew one of the words I got a little shot of delight and felt super smart, which was a nice little perk. 😂 Each chapter is titled by a big fancy word, with the description given. Najwa loves the meanings of words, so she makes it clear what things mean for us, the non-Scrabble-pro audience. And if you ARE a Scrabble pro, I would LOVE to hear your take on this. It must be fascinating!
7 thoughts on “Review: Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf”
I knew this was a book about Scrabble, but somehow I missed that it was also a murder mystery. I’d have to be in the right mood to read this one—teen angst over trusting adults is something that I both believe and need to be in the right mood for—but it does sound like something I could enjoy! Especially the new words in the chapter headings… 😉
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Good luck then! I’m a total mood reader too so I feel the struggle 😁
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