This 320 page YA book is hard to put down and middle school readers and up that love words, a good mystery, and fantastic writing are in for a treat. I can’t recall the last whodunit that had me absolutely sure that I knew who was guilty, while simultaneously doubting myself until the reveal. I mean, maybe there wasn’t even a crime to unravel? And fear not, I’m not going to spoil anything in this review. Just know that this Muslim authored, Muslim character filled, Malaysian set, Scrabble feast is worth a space on your shelf as it will undoubtedly make a place in your heart and beg to be read again and again to see what you missed.
It has been one year since Najwa has competed in a Scrabble tournament, one year since her best friend, Trina Low, died playing Scrabble at the very same tournament, at the same hotel, with many of the same participants. And with Najwa battling her angry negative thoughts, splotchy memory, nerves, and grief, she is walking a fine line of functioning and faltering. When Instagram posts and messages start popping up from Trina’s account, everyone becomes a suspect in unraveling what really happened and doing it fast enough to prevent it from happening again.
The backdrop is the Scrabble games that are still taking place, the play on words, the scoring, the plotting, the twists, the scrambling, and unraveling of so many characters that are more connected than they first appear.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love Scrabble, my mom and I used to play weekly when I was in junior high through college, and while the games were “friendly,” and neither us very good, the game holds wonderful memories. Usually chess is referenced for strategies in real world approaches, so to see Scrabble on a competitive level and have it being in many ways a metaphor for the larger storyline truly had me giddy. I’m still grinning in fact as I write this review. The mixing of the two story lines is flawless, with the word play, and scoring, and definitions, that I am just beyond impressed with the writing, the clarity, the intensity, and the way it holds the readers attention.
Many of the characters are Muslim and they mention their hijabs, waking- or rather trying to wake each other up for fajr. At one point Najwa and Mark, Trina’s ex-boyfriend are meeting to talk and she acknowledges the halal gap left as they sit down and how they are both always mindful of her Muslimness and his non Muslimness. Islam is there, but is not a big part of the story. I beamed when it popped up, but if doesn’t influence the story much, for example one night Najwa plans to sleep in her hijab incase she has to run for her life, so you know, she won’t be slowed down by trying to cover her head. Yeah, the book has some dry humor too.
There is a large mental health role in the book, as it seems in all of the author’s books: The Weight of Our Sky and The Girl and the Ghost. Najwa is coping with her grief and trauma and working closely with her doctor to improve her situation. Other characters mention going to therapists and likewise getting professional help. I love that it isn’t just a character trait, but that it is a big part of the story, and not in a negative way, but in an actively working to manage it way.
I like how the gender neutral character is handled and pronouns are used. It is not opined upon, it is not in your face, it is a side character, they have a preference of how to be referred to as, a quip is made that if they win they don’t want to be queen of the tiles, but a more less gendered term perhaps monarch, and that is it. It is not a judgement, it is not a big part of the story, and no one makes it a huge issue, the character isn’t fleshed out much, but they are respected and have more to their personality than this one facet. I think that provides a great approach in seeing something in literature that can perhaps spark important conversations in real life in need be.
The only slight pauses the book gave me were when it talks about how incredibly wealthy and distant Trina’s parents were, but then for much of her life she lived in a modest town house style house. Also, despite Mark and Najwa’s awareness of boundaries, and Najwa being called out for crushing on Mark, at one point he hugs her and I don’t know if that is an oversight or was intentional.
There is death, murder (?), poisoning, deceit, plotting, cheating in multiple ways, kissing, crushes, relationships, multiple mental health threads, intense competition, danger.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would love to do this as a book club selection. I think as long as no one spoils the outcome there would be so much to chat about: the twists and turns, the way Islam and Malay culture is shown, the influence of western culture, concept of competitive Scrabble, pronoun sensitivities, and healthy friendship. Girls and boys in middle school will be drawn to the story, and I can’t wait to share.