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Genes Book Club - Warpaint reviews

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GenesBookClub Advisor Report 8 Apr 2014 16:37

Hi everyone,

To those of you who were selected to receive a free copy of Warpaint, we hope you enjoy reading it and would love to hear what you think of the book.

Author Alicia Foster is an art historian who has published work on influential female artists for the Tate, and writes on painting, art and female artists.


AnninGlos Report 22 Apr 2014 12:56

Review for Genes book club of Warpaint by Alicia Foster.

It is difficult to review a book properly without giving away the plot but that wouldn’t be fair to those who have not yet read it. This is Alicia Foster’s first novel and it is, in my opinion, a good one. Although at first I found I had to make notes of who was who and their part in the story as there seemed to be so many characters and so much information all at once. But that should probably be put down to my age and to being used to reading novels quickly without looking too closely at how good the actual book is. This is not a long book being only 245 pages, which is short by today’s standards.

I was aware of war artists but I was only aware of them painting scenes from the front particularly in both World Wars. I had not realised they painted for propaganda as well. And, of course, I knew that propaganda was produced on both sides but was not aware of the extent of it and that there was a whole department (Black in the novel) devoted to it.

At first, because there were several actual people as characters in the story; Sir Kenneth Clarke, Dame Laura Knight, Brendan Bracken, I had the feeling that I was reading a true story. I had to keep reminding myself that it was actually fiction. However, that is surely the mark of a good novel, the mix of historical fact and fiction making you believe in it. The subject has been very well researched and Alicia Foster obviously knows about Art History. I loved the descriptions of Dame Laura’s apparel, she sounded the sort of septuagenarian that I would like to meet.

The first chapters set the scene and at first I thought that Bletchley Park, the villa where Black was situated and the WAAC (War artists advisory committee) were all in the same area. It made more sense to the story when I worked out by re-reading that the latter was situated in London.

Black and WAAC were both advised by letter from Bracken that they needed to be more productive or be terminated. The Head of Black is Sam, his wife Vivienne is an artist and part of the team. Charles ostensibly part of the team also, reveals to Vivienne that he has been sent there to investigate that all is as it seems. He finds out that she is having an affair with Frido who is important in the Berlin resistance, and German, and working for Black. He is investigating both Sam and Frido and she is instructed to help him an he won't reveal the affair.

Sir Kenneth , when he receives his letter appoints a young man, Smith to bring the women artists into line. We follow the stories of three of them. Then the two departments become linked by more than the production of and painting for propaganda. There is a real feeling of menace about the story and a good twist towards the end.

Because it is not a long book I read it fairly quickly, it is not in my opinion a book that can be picked up and put down at frequent intervals. I feel it is better read in large ‘chunks’ to get the whole picture. I did enjoy it and would certainly read more of her books when and if she writes them.


Dorothy Report 24 Apr 2014 20:37

Unfortunately I did not receive my copy of Warpaint although I was selected so will not be able to do a review this time. :-(


GenesBookClub Advisor Report 25 Apr 2014 11:50

Hi AnninGlos,

Thank you for your review, very thorough. The team has enjoyed reading this one!

The Book Club


GenesBookClub Advisor Report 25 Apr 2014 11:51

Hi Dorothy,

We will chase this up and get back to you.

The Book Club


SuffolkVera Report 26 Apr 2014 17:59

Warpaint by Alicia Foster

AnninGlos has given a good resume of the story above, so I will not repeat that, nor add anything about the plot as I do not want to give it away to those who haven't yet read it.

Like Ann, I knew of the war artists working in the field but didn't know about the amount of propaganda produced by the artists or the department, here called Black, dedicated to demoralising the other side. I found some of their work disturbing and inhumane though I accept they were desperate times.

The book is well researched and quite well written. I found the very short early chapters a bit irritating. I think it was a device to introduce the various characters and the main elements of the story but I felt there was too much "flitting". That improved as the book progressed.

Some of the characters didn't really come alive for me. I felt the best drawn were those who really existed, particularly Dame Laura Knight. What a character she was, though the author herself says "Laura Knight ....... Is my imagined version of her".

Sadly I did not get the feeling of menace about the book that AnninGlos found and I had guessed at a good part of the denouement before I got to the final chapters so the end of the story was not really a surprise for me.

I am glad I read it as I learnt something about the wartime propaganda machine. I hope my review doesn't put anyone off reading it as it is not a bad book at all. It just didn't grip me in the way I had hoped it would.


+++DetEcTive+++ Report 27 Apr 2014 11:22

Ann’s review is excellent.

Although I was vaguely aware of women war artists, this fictional story was based on 3 real people.

One could suggest that the whole book explores the way War can liberate women.
Flamboyant Laura Knight who inserts herself into a ‘mans’ world
Faith Farr (Evelyn Dunbar) who finds the courage to convince her parents to allow her to ‘do her bit’
Cecily Browne (Grace Golden) the East End girl whose talent has overcome the class obstacles of her birth. Described at the beginning of the book as being child-like, she blossoms as she deals with personal fall-out.

They all have to overcome their desire to paint what they see, to paint what the WAAC wants to exhibit to the public.

Of the three, Cecily is in the one character that represents ordinary working class women.

We can contrast her living conditions with the privileged lives of the characters that live and work in the ‘Black’ House. While Cecily has to resort to Food Kitchens, there is no shortage of food and culinary luxuries for the Black Team. Some of these luxuries, we are told, were transported from France. What a waste of clandestine resources!

The suggestion that the Black team member Fido was not only producing propaganda, but was also contributing to Resistance events went against all previous reading.

One thing that wasn’t mentioned in the book; Bomber airmen risked their lives to drop the propaganda material behind enemy lines. An elderly neighbour who flew in Bombers said that the aircrew resented having to drop leaflets rather than bombs; they wouldn’t bother untying the bundles, just released them from the plane and hoped that the landing would cause damage.

Over all it was an enjoyable read.


Patricia Report 29 Apr 2014 15:34

I enjoyed this book and read it quite quickly. I live in Bedfordshire and found local interest in references to Aspley Guise. When driving through the village I could not help trying to guess where the Black mansion was.
A lot of my pleasure in the book was finding out about the women war artists and their work and the work of Black which I had never heard of. In fact this aspect was almost better than the plot! I also found the description of conditions in London atmospheric and convincing.
There were a few things about the structure of the book that I found a bit difficult. The sometimes long and complicated back story of each character as they were introduced was sometimes confusing. There were some long, involved sentences that I had to re-read to get the meaning clear. However in the main I found the plot interesting and involving and wanted to get back to the book when I had to stop reading. I will be interested to read another book by this author and see how her fiction writing develops.


Whizz Report 3 May 2014 11:19

I enjoyed this novel for it brought to my attention an aspect of WWII that I was unaware of, namely the work of WWAC and BLACK and I feel I am the richer for that knowledge. Yet again I am indebted to Genes Reunited for the book for it is highly unlikely I would have read it otherwise.
I very much had the feel that was a first novel. It was as if the writer didn't quite trust her reader to make all the necessary connections and the novel was over wordy in places with some lengthy sentences. I guess that's down to experience. At some point the novelist has to trust that the reader will play their part!!
I liked the fiction and the factual complementing each other. The writer's knowledge was evident throughout.
The characters were pretty well defined on the whole although there were some who seemed to be mere functions of the plot and I didn't feel I got to know them as people.
But hats off to Ms Foster for I never saw the final denouement coming and it was one of those where you kick yourself for not having realised. I loved that.
This author is now well within my radar and I'll keep an eye open for any future work.


Morag Report 6 May 2014 09:53

Like some other reviewers, I had no knowledge of WAAC or the importance of art as propaganda in the war. This is a little jewel of a book which educates as well as entertains. The characters are well drawn; one feels Faith's apprehension, Smith's initial helplessness and the force of Dame Laura's personality.

The description of the air crew through Dame Laura's eyes is particularly vivid, as is the sense of menace in the blackout. My parents had told me about the blackout but I don't think I considered how terrifying it would be to feel watched in total darkness.

The sense of not knowing who to trust runs through the book and would, I imagine, be an accurate portrayal of the time. The twist at the end was completely unexpected and added to the satisfying experience of reading this book.

Once again, thanks to Penguin and Genes Reunited for bringing to my attention a book I may otherwise have overlooked.


Pammy51 Report 6 May 2014 10:11

I haven't much to add as others have written such good reviews. Although I have enjoyed other books this is the first of the books I have got from Penguin that I am going to keep to reread later.
I loved the little details like street names painted on the pavement so you could read them from the light of your torch without destroying the blackout, I had not heard of that before.
I googled the images of the paintings done by Dame Laura and the other 'real' artists and the painting of the air crew is just as described as well as the one of the landgirls in their billet.


Marie Report 7 May 2014 04:08

Fascinating book! I was not very aware of the propaganda that was perpetuated this way during the war. I was aware of pamphlets being dropped into areas but had never thought out the process behind this. The human stories in the book were well done. You could imagine well enough from the descriptive story what their lives had been reduced to during wartime.


AngieP Report 9 May 2014 21:20

Like Marie I was not aware of the propaganda of artists during the war, but too was aware of leaflet drops etc. I enjoyed getting to know the background of the three main characters. As a lot has already been said about the plot etc, will just like to add that I throughly enjoyed it and found it a fascinating story. Thank you :-)


Patricia Report 10 May 2014 08:24

Like the other reviewers I don't want to give away too much of the plot. However, I didn't mind the short chapters. Initially I found how the characters linked together abit confusing. It wasn't until the last few chapters that it all seemed to knit together. I wasn't aware of how artists were used for propoganda, so the history itself, I found very interesting. It was a good read and kept you wondering. :-)


Lesley Report 11 May 2014 17:39

Started the book later than I would have liked, so I am only half way through it. I am enjoying it. I love the method of using little known, but real events and people as the basis of a novel. There is humour as well as tragedy. A good but easy read. I am eager to finish the book and find out what happens! Thank you for the chance to learn about something I did not know and an author I was unfamiliar with. Lesley


GenesBookClub Advisor Report 14 May 2014 14:34

Hi everyone,

Thank you for your detailed reviews. Alicia Foster is certainly an author to keep an eye on.

The Book Club


Winifred Report 24 May 2014 12:47

Just received mine so it'll be a few days before my review goes up. Must say it looks like my kind of book and I am looking forward to reading it.
Wynn x


Winifred Report 27 May 2014 16:43

Well better late than never. Everything seems to have bee said earlier reviews but I will still add my twopenneth for what it's worth.
The book was an easy read if not confusing at the beginning until you got into the rhythm of the layout of the chapters.
The snippets of reviews on the book cover are slightly misleading I feel. 'A plot full of twists........a whip smart thriller.....' Sunday Mirror. I didn't find this at all. I certainly wouldn't class it as a thriller!! 'A gripping thriller..... Irish. Times. The Metro review has it spot on in my opinion....'A fascinating insight into a little known aspect of history '
Definitely not gripping edge of the seat stuff but it was enjoyable, interesting,informative. The characters were well drawn and the historical facts were well researched.
The twist at the end I had guessed earlier. Didn't see the suicide coming tho.
A good read and an informative book about the roles of women artists and the propaganda machine.
Don't know whether I will be tempted to read more by this author unless they are of an historical nature............she certainly isn't a thriller writer.
Thank you Penguin looking forward to another good read.