Hall of Fame Review: Queenie by Kimberley Chambers

Wednesday 22 January 2020
Title: Queenie
Author: Kimberley Chambers
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: 23rd January 2020
Pages: 512
Source: Review Copy
Rating: 5/5
Purchase: Amazon

For young Queenie, life in the backstreets of Whitechapel was a lesson in survival – Hitler’s bombs hit those with nothing the hardest. When danger strikes close to home, Queenie finds an ally in Mrs O’Leary, whose two sons are the kingpins of the East End. But while the O’Learys are the light in Queenie’s life, fate has a different path in store.


Now married to the useless Albie Butler, Queenie is raising her children to fight their own battles. If the O’Learys taught her anything, it was that surviving meant doing whatever you had to, no questions asked, and family always comes first. The Butler boys will make sure their mother’s name becomes East End legend.


I am a huge Kimberley Chambers fan and I have been so excited to read Queenie ever since Kim first said she was writing a prequel to the Butler series. And what a prequel this is, the tag line of the Queen of Gangland Crime has never been truer. I don’t want to speak too soon and say this is Kim’s best book yet, but it’s certainly one of them.

I was excited for the future of Kim’s books after the end of the Mitchell series and the Butler series with the incredible finale she delivered with Backstabber, but I was a little bit gutted to be leaving the families behind, especially the Butlers. I can still remember reading the Mitchell and O'Hara series across the course of one week, finishing The Victim at 2.30am in the morning. I can still remember the day I bought The Trap for the first time, well funnily enough I didn’t buy it my mum bought it for me and brought it home from work early on the morning of its release and I absolutely devoured it. I remember being in London and seeing Payback on sale early in ASDA on the Isle of Dogs, and so I bought it and didn’t mind one jot about carrying a big hardback around with me because I had one of my most anticipated books of the year early. Then along came my blog where I was privileged enough to start getting books early and I can remember my reaction to getting each and every one of Kim’s books. Memorable because of how excited I was and how much I loved the books, some books are easy to forget but I am never going to forget these ones. Kimberley Chambers is one hell of a storyteller, and she tells stories that leave lasting impressions.

Queenie has always been one of the best characters that Kim has created. A proper East Ender and in Queenie we see an incredible life from all the way back to the start of the war to Queenie’s old age. Kim has written books across many different decades but I felt that she captured the time of the war brilliantly here in Queenie. Even as a kid books set around the wartime fascinated me, especially about evacuation and then when I was older the books my mum and nan would read set in wartime Liverpool I started to read too. However Queenie is a much darker portrayal of that time with some of the stuff that goes on, but still there’s that real sense of community and camaraderie and it’s a believable portrayal of a time gone by, I’m not sure whether in the present day people would be the same as they were back then. One bit that will always feel powerful and draw emotion from me is the declaration of war by Neville Chamberlain, even here in its written form it’s still as haunting as hearing it spoken aloud, we can only imagine how people felt back then. Everything about that time for the chapters featuring that period felt so very real.

While I could talk about the story all day, and it would literally take me all day because this isn’t just a book, it felt like multiple books in one. It’s a proper saga that I took my time to read because I wanted to savour it and didn’t want it to end. It reminded me of when I fell in love with Martina Cole’s earlier books which weren’t just one story but were epic tales spanning many decades. Kim captures each the time periods so fantastically, it’s a truly evocative read and I always have no trouble visualising in my mind what I am reading about. The sights and sounds of London from the war onwards are brought to life here so vividly. For some reason I have always loved the East End of London and have always been fascinated by its history. Coming from a rough area of Liverpool maybe that’s why, but I always love reading about the old East End, and Kim always brings it to life so well. There was a line in the book where I think it’s Queenie who says about how a coffee shop wouldn’t do well in the area, well you can’t move for them now in some parts of the East End and while some say regeneration is good for what some see as ‘bad’ areas, it’s not for all of the people who get pushed out. The characters who grew up there and who made the area what it was are all present here and it’s a fantastic read of times gone by.

What I liked about Queenie was getting to see how the family came to be created. Queenie had a truly shocking start to life and I enjoyed seeing how she made a life for herself and the family that she went on to have. I’m not going to say she’s a wholly likeable character for the entire story because she’s not. Some of the things she does are questionable but at the same time I can easily see why she does what she does as deep down she only ever wants the best for her family. It was great seeing a younger Albie who I felt was shown in a much better light here than he was in the series, although not all of the time. I think that was where Queenie was her most unlikeable to me in terms of their marriage, but again all of the history that we read about in this mammoth story all add up to make sense to why certain characters behaved like they did in the main series. And as the book nears its conclusion I was absolutely gripped to what I was reading as some huge secrets are revealed.

All the other characters aside one of the ones who I was most intrigued to read about was a young Vinny Butler. We knew some of the reasons and events that made him the man he was in the later books but one reason why a prequel being written after a series has been completed works so well is that it makes us understand the characters more. I found myself thinking about scenes from the series after reading something in this book and thinking, 'well that’s why that happened' or 'oh that makes perfect sense now'. Vinny has always been a fascinating and enigmatic character and I have to admit I was gripped to some parts of his story here in Queenie.

I would say that I got more enjoyment out of reading Queenie having already read all of the later books. I don’t know what it was but I just felt that because I already knew the characters and where their stories went, there was just a different feel to the book than if I was meeting them for the first time. For that reason despite this being a prequel I think it could be beneficial to some readers to read the series first and then come back to this, but let’s be honest everyone has read all of Kimberley’s books already so let’s get Queenie bought and get another bestseller for the Queen of Gangland crime. I have read on Twitter about Sheridan Smith playing Queenie and I have to say if that ever happened it would be the best thing ever, I absolutely adore Sheridan Smith and think she would play Queenie so well. I would be over the moon to see Kim’s work on TV, and hope that it will happen one day.

I have to admit to finishing Queenie with a bit of a lump in my throat, once again Kimberley Chambers has written another story that is going to stay with me for a long time. I don’t feel like I’ve just finished a work of fiction, but rather read somebody’s life story. A story that was in places funny and heartwarming but then also harrowing and heartbreaking. Queenie is easily going to be one of my top reads of 2020, and I imagine it’s going to go straight to the top of the best sellers list. I cannot wait to see what Kim writes next but for now, her fans are absolutely going to love Queenie.

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