From the Stacks: Scrabble tournaments, mystery meet in YA novel

"Queen of the Tiles" by Hanna Alkaf MRRL/News Tribune

In "Queen of the Tiles" by Hanna Alkaf, Malaysian teen Najwa Bakri hasn't felt able to compete in Scrabble tournaments ever since witnessing her best friend, Trina Low, die in the final round of a major competition last year.

Trina was a true "Queen of the Tiles," a virtually unbeatable opponent. Najwa's grief and trauma have kept her from competing all year long, but now that the same tournament has come back around, Najwa decides that she owes it to herself and Trina to become the new "Queen of the Tiles," lest someone Trina would deem undeserving of the title get it instead.

The competition is fierce, but Najwa knows she has what it takes to be the new Queen.

At first, Najwa is happy to see the familiar faces of her long-time Scrabble competitors, but then cryptic posts start popping up on Trina's long-defunct Instagram account. The posts typically consist of scrambled letters that, unscrambled, spelled out ominous words like REGICIDE and JANIFORM, implying that Trina's death was no accident.

Now every competitor vying for tile royalty is a potential suspect and Najwa feels compelled to team up with some of the other competitors to figure out precisely what happened to Trina, even if it means dredging up traumatic memories and acknowledging that she may not have known Trina nearly as well as she thought.

Of course, she is also unsure of how much she can trust her Scrabble friends and their ambitions, no matter how friendly they may seem. All's fair in love and Scrabble, after all.

With a setting unique to YA fiction and an intriguing cast of characters, Queen of the Tiles has a lot to love.

Each chapter heading includes a Scrabble word, along with the point value and definition -- a nod to Najwa's inclination to learn the meanings of the words she plays as opposed to simply memorizing high-value words, as well as providing foreshadowing for the chapter ahead.

Fans of locked-room mysteries will appreciate the (almost) entirely hotel-bound narrative as our protagonists compete and sleuth in equal measure.

Twists and turns abound, keeping readers on their toes, but the emotional notes of a teen who has not yet come to terms with her grief will resonate well after the final page is turned.

This nerdy, quirky mystery will appeal to a broad range of readers, both teen and adult. Overall, SUPERLATIVE (16 points).

Courtney Waters is the youth services manager at the Missouri River Regional Library.