Cover Image: In the Garden of Spite

In the Garden of Spite

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Member Reviews

Well, I just loved this!

Bell Gunness has always been fascinating to me and this book makes her come to rather horrifying life!

Now, this historical fiction and the author provides a handy explanation in the back of the book telling you what was cold hard fact and what was elaborated on.  However, having read this, I sort of want this to be the whole truth.

I was completely into this from the first chapter and just didn't want to stop reading.

I hope the author does something similar in the future with other infamous women!
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In the Garden of Spite by Camilla Bruce was an impulse download because it's got one of the best book titles in recent memory.  Oh, and it's a historical suspense novel based (loosely) on the life of Belle Gunness, a serial killer who operated in Chicago and Indiana in the late 19th / early 20th century.  I'm not sure what I was expecting exactly besides gruesome, but what I ended up getting was basically the thriller equivalent of slowing down on the freeway to look at a grisly car accident.  Did I like this?  Not really. Was I, at times, riveted?  Most definitely.

Warning: Spoilers (complete with trigger warnings) ahead!

Our story opens in Selbu, Norway and finds our heroine Brynhild living in poverty with her mother, younger sister, and abusive, drunkard father. She's a maid / kitchen help at a nearby farm and of course she's pregnant thanks to the farmer's oldest son (hello, the heir).  The pregnancy is no secret and when people aren't suggesting she "take care of it" they're calling her a fool.  But Brynhild wants this baby and just knows the farmer's son will do right by her - even if she does have to threaten to go to the local priest. The farmer's son, not about to marry dirt poor Brynhild lures her to the river and proceeds to beat her to the point of miscarriage and near death.  But Brynhild vows to live, if only for spite - well, that and revenge.  Let's not forget revenge.

You gotta love the 19th century. After Brynhild recovers she's constantly reminded of her shame, told it's basically all her fault, but nobody bats an eye when she goes back to work on the farm and suddenly the Pyschopathic Baby Daddy becomes very ill and dies. While she's slowly poisoning this sack of human garbage, Brynhild is writing letters to her much older sister in Chicago spinning tales of woe and begging her dirt poor sister and her husband to send money so she can relocate to America.  Which they do.  Brynhild changes her name to Belle and moves in.

This book shifts between Belle's and sister Nellie's point of view.  Nellie, what a dumb bunny this woman is. Typical hardworking 19th century immigrant woman. A happy marriage, but living in a Chicago tenement taking in other peoples' laundry and with a wrecked back thanks to hard labor and numerous pregnancies (several miscarriages and infant deaths but by the end of the book she's had 3 children see adulthood).  Anyway, Belle isn't exactly the big help Nellie was expecting or, quite frankly, needs - but she just wants her sister to be happy.  Of course there's that unpleasant business when Belle stabs a suitor with a pair scisscors when he tries to rape her, that was unfortunate. NOW HOW WILL SHE EVER FIND A HUSBAND?!

Y'all seriously. Men are a problem.

Anyhoodle, at this point Belle has killed the Baby Daddy who beat her near to death causing a miscarriage and stabbed a drunken suitor who was intent on raping her. This second gem of a human being ends up murdered later on thanks to Belle's future lover / accomplice.  Now, here's the thing, I'm not saying she should have necessarily murdered these men but girl, I understand.  No, the problem here is that Belle goes entirely too far after the stabbing and men who aren't scum get sucked into her orbit. 

She soon marries a nice man she meets at church (as you do) and she milks Mads into the comfortable lifestyle she feels she deserves, but as the money dwindles and the babies don't come (thank you Mr. Asshole in Norway), it all starts to sour.  Belle meets James Lee (her future lover and accomplice) starts taking in foster kids, starts faking pregnancies, starts her own business which she later burns down for the insurance money, and starts slowly poisoning her husband to keep him meek and in line.  After many, many years of this she finally gets fed up with him and finishes job - conveniently on the last day of Insurance Policy #1 and the first day of Insurance Policy #2.  Basically poor dopey Mads pays off twice!

Belle then moves to Indiana, marries again, the inevitable happens, and oopsie doodle - Dead Husband #2.  By this time Belle has four children and a taste for blood.  She starts luring men to her farm with promises of land and love (just bring cash darling) and the bodies conveniently disappear thanks to her acres of land.

And all the while there's poor, long-suffering Nellie fretting about her sister.  Honestly I love Author Notes in historical fiction and Bruce gives us a good one. Belle did have an older sister named Nellie but the sisters fell out after Husband #1 died. So the Nellie in the book is nearly a complete fabrication which the author indicates she did in order to create an "empathetic character."  Yeah, nice try.  Belle, I understood. Nellie?  Nellie is a coward.  She suspects her sister is a monster, but she just stands by wringing her hands. No, Nellie basically sends in the children to do a woman's job - and naturally things end very badly for the snooping oldest daughter.  Nellie, dumb bunny that she is, gets her foster niece murdered.  I just - really?!  You're too much of a wuss to stand up to your sister so you SEND IN A CHILD TO FIND OUT WHAT BELLE IS HIDING IN THE FORBIDDEN CELLAR?!?!?!?  Yeah, it's more than root vegetables.  Anyway, Nellie is ineffectual, mealy-mouthed and I'm supposed to empathize with this woman?  No.  At least Belle is compelling in a train-wreck, murderous rampage sort of way.  Nellie is just the literal worst.

It's a blood-soaked extravaganza with dismembered body parts, pop psychology (Belle could have been born bad but her father, her first lover and the would-be rapist probably didn't help matters), arson, and several dead children.  Oh sure, Belle loved kids and by all accounts was "a good mother" - but children still end up dead all the same. I lost count - six dead kids? Mother of the Year!

So where does that leave us? Lord, I have no idea. This was certainly entertaining but I'm not sure I can (or want to) necessarily recommend it.  It's Dark AF and fairly gory. If you're curious don't say I didn't warn you.

Final Grade = C
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This story is based on Belle Gunness - someone I’ve heard of and found incredibly intriguing. 

I was excited to get a deeper dive into her life after listening to a podcast episode based on her and I think that’s where I went wrong. I’ve already said I find Gunness intriguing, but this was a slow burn and I honestly found it a little boring. 

I do think this book was incredibly atmospheric and dark, which I have liked in the past, but something about 2020 and what 2021 has been made it a more difficult read.
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3 out of 5 stars - It was ok

Thank you to NetGalley and Berkely Publishing Group for an Advanced Reader Copy.

This is based on the story of Belle Gunness (Belle Sorensen, Brynhild Storset, and other names I'm sure) who was an active serial killer in Chicago, IL, and La Porte, IN, around 1900. While not a lot is known of specifics, and no deaths were ever tied directly to her, this book takes a look at what might have happened.

While I was intrigued by a female serial killer that I'd never heard of, the book left me a little bored. Sure, there was death and mental health issues and violence, but it was a pretty slow build to get there. I kept wondering when the "serial" part of the killer was going to start. The story was interesting, with historical details that brought it to life, but I kept waiting for something to happen.
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I loved Bruce's prior novel, YOU LET ME IN, and was looking forward to this historical novel based on an actual 19th-century murderer. The atmosphere and characters are excellent, but I didn't finish the novel. I know I will get back to it on some future sunny day.  It is a bit too psychologically dark and brutal for me at this time with the current state of the world. Bruce deeply gets into the mind of Belle Sorensen. I both felt for her and feared what she'd do next. Bruce has a talent for writing the most extreme situations as believable and almost rational, which is compelling and unsettling. Readers who are into serial killers and historical fiction will probably relish this one.
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Great fictional telling 9f Belle Gunness. I had recently read a nonfiction book about her and enjoyed the accurate description the author gave.
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Oh but this was done so spectacularly well. It was dark, violent and kept me up, heart racing long after I’d finished it. I’ve read the earc and reread it via audio shortly after its release for how much of an impact it’s left on me. It literally blew my mind, a hell of a ride and fantastically written!! I really hope to see more novels in this style from Camilla!
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In the Garden of Spite by Camilla Bruce is a fictionalized version of one of the most brutal female serial killers, Belle Gunness. This was a dark, intense, and twisty read. The author really brings the reader into the mind of a serial killer.
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This was one of those books that I was upset to finish because it was just. So. Good. I may be biased because I've had a fascination with Belle Gunness for YEARS but I thought the author did a phenomenal job of characterizing her as both sympathetic and monstrous. I will absolutely be reading more from this author!
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Serial Killers scare me, yet I am interested in reading about them. Many people have reviewed this book before me, so I’m going to keep this review very simple. 

Fictionalising a true character is seriously a tough job and the author has done an exceptional job at this. The story although moving slow, had me gripped by the neck and didn’t leave me until the end. The afterword by the author is brilliant and elevated the book more. 

Read this book if - you like to know more about serial killers, fresh take on real life characters, insider feelings of a killer and a good storytelling that could pass for biography type fiction and a thriller. [4.25/5]

Thank you Berkley and Netgalley for the arc. Definitely worth adding to the collection.
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I wanted to wash after reading this book. While the heroine had reasons for turning into a psychopath, I didn't enjoy reading about her increasingly violent exploits. However, once I'd started the book I did find it hard to put down. I had to know what happened. That's why it gets three stars instead of two. I do wish that I'd never picked up the book in the first place.
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In this fictionalized version of true the true historical event from one of the most brutal female serial killers, author Camilla Bruce brings us into the very disturbed mind of Belle Gunness. Belle is a woman who learned to exist due to spite. Born Little Brynhild, but she had her reasons for changing her name to Belle. She experienced many awful things in her early life: was extremely poor, had an abusive and controlling father, her mother seemed without strength, but worse of all, she experienced unspeakable trauma that marked her for life. She soon took the first steps that would prove how brutal she would become. 

Meanwhile, as this story goes, Belle, who was born and raised in Norway, always wanted to get away. Her hopes were extremely dim, but her sister Nellie escaped to American years previously. Nellie is living in Chicago, married, and at the time, has a small son. Nellie's life is not much better financially than Belle's, but she is away from all of that darkness.

This is Belle's story, but Nellie is our other narrator in this grim tale. In fact, the author has taken certain literary licenses to make the brutality that occurred into something readable. She did a remarkable job, thus we have Nellie's interesting and thought-provoking point of view. It takes some years, but Belle manages to board a ship that brings her to America, and to her sister's home. However, Nellie can sense a darkness in Belle, something that cannot be assuaged. 

Eventually, Belle marries and then it all begins. Belle has a husband, a home and more, but it is not enough. She soon becomes known as the Widow of La Porte, as her husband dies. How he dies is up to the reader to discover. Remember, Belle lives based on spite, and what she does in her life proves this fact every single day. If she has to live by brutal, gruesome, unspeakable means, so be it. Belle is a survivor. She makes her own rules. Also, just as we have Nellie as a character in this story, there is another character, James Lee, who has a great impact on Belle's life. 

While this story is not for the faint of heart, ergo ME, I simply could not put it down. Seeing inside the mind of someone so disturbed was very intriguing that I read page after page until I got to the very last chapter. I did have to put the book down then. I chose to watch a couple of podcasts on YouTube to further deal with what I was reading. Then I completed this incredibly written book.

Many thanks to Berkley and to NetGalley for this ARC for review. This is my honest opinion.
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Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. In the Garden of Spite is available for purchase now.

Belle Gunness wasn’t always a murderer. Once she was a girl wronged. Once she was a child looking to escape. Once she was a hopeful mother. Maybe. Or maybe she was always vicious, always dangerous, and always hungry for violence. This book combines fact, rumor, and creative license to weave a tale both unsettling and engrossing.

I had honestly not heard of the Widow of La Porte prior to this book. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m the most knowledgeable when it comes to the bloodier side of individuals. I was completely sucked in and spent most of the book wondering how much of this grisly story could possibly be true. It turns out, quite a bit.

Belle was originally named Brynhild and spent her childhood in Norway. The reader joins the story right at what could be viewed as the catalyst to Brynhild’s bloodlust. I have to be honest: I did skip past the opening experience that Brynhild suffered. I was able to infer what happened without reading it, and it is something that I personally choose not to read about in books. I don’t usually give trigger warnings, but please be aware that this book is harsh (it is about a serial killer, after all).

After her first murder, Belle traveled to America to begin a new life. This “new life” led to the deaths of many men, including two husbands. The way the story unfolds is nothing short of enthralling. Author Camilla Bruce had an amazing way of portraying a damaged woman who can hug her children and plan a murder in the same moment. It was disturbing and brilliant in equal measure.

In the Garden of Spite is told from two perspectives: one is Belle’s sister, who is initially unaware of Belle’s tendencies, and the other is Belle herself. It was fascinating to see Belle’s sister, Nellie, as she begins to notice that there are things that are off about Belle. As the story progresses, Nellie wrestles with her desire to protect her sister and her knowledge that she might be keeping secrets for a serial killer. I really felt sorry for her, while at the same time wanting to shake her. Her dream of “saving” her sister from a bad life in Norway left her with feelings of guilt and fear. It also left a hefty body count.

Belle herself was terrifying. She was cold-blooded but was able to mimic the emotions others expected from her. She was smart but rash. She was never overwritten, if that makes sense. Instead, she was incredibly well-developed with many layers. She definitely got under my skin.

I flew through this story and was equally fascinated by the author’s afterward, explaining where facts ended and speculation began. Holy crow, author Camilla Bruce was able to mesh truth and fiction brilliantly! I was left with shivers and the hope that In the Garden of Spite won’t be her only foray into the true crime genre.
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Haunting, cunning, black widow vibes....these are three words that come to mind when I think of this book. Before I picked this one up, I had heard of Belle Gunness, the Norwegian-American serial killer who was active in Illinois and Indiana between 1884-1908. I think there may even be a movie or two about her. This work of historical fiction was a decent read. It would not normally be at the top of my list to read, but with my Norwegian heritage and prior interest in Belle's activities, I found it to be interesting. 

If you've found yourself plotting against your honey or interested in the evil side of women, I would definitely recommend this one to you!

Thank you to Netgalley for an advance digital copy in exchange for my honest review!
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This was a fascinating read and I really enjoyed the creepy vibes that the narrative created, but the pacing was a bit off for me.
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I was so excited for In The Garden Of Spite by Camilla Bruce. Unfortunately I had to DNF this one. I wanted so much to love this book. But I just can’t get into it. It’s way to slow for me. 

Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for a gifted copy in exchange for my honest review.
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I enjoyed this book a lot. It was very in depth into the female mind. I will recommend this book to patrons that enjoy true crime and serial killer novels.
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You know about Chicago's infamous serial killer H. H. Holmes, but have you heard of Belle Gunness, the Widow of La Porte? Belle's childhood was marked by poverty, abuse, and troubled family circumstances in a small Norwegian farming community, but she immigrated to Chicago to be near her older sister as a young woman in 1881. She was determined never to be poor or dismissed again. In America, Belle decided that women did not have to settle for less than what they deserved simply due to unfortunate social circumstances. But Belle still carried a lot of anger and spite from her upbringing and did not have much tolerance for lazy, arrogant, or stupid men, most especially. Her annoyance and frustration gave life to an unparalleled hatred, leaving as many as 40 bodies in her wake. This book is a fictionalized account of the life of Belle Gunness, but based on extensive research done by the author. Fans of Chicago history, historical fiction, and true crime will enjoy exploring the possible motivations behind one of the area's most prolific serial killers.

*A February 2021 Staff Pick, Chicago Public Library
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This story had a lot of potential but I couldn't get into it. The writing style made everything feel very old-fashioned and creepy but not in a good way. It seems like many others have enjoyed this though so I think it's just not for me!
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Unfortunately, I did not finish this book. I felt that it was very long winded and didn't give enough in the beginning to pull you in. There wasn't anything that made me say "whats going to happen" in the first 100 pages. If there isn't something that makes me feel this way, there at least has to be some narrative between characters that help me become invested in the characters. This did not happen either. As a reader that can get through almost 12 books every month, books have to be able to hold my attention.
     The writing itself wasn't bad per se, but when you find yourself picking up other things because you don't care whats happening to the characters or the storyline, that's not a great sign. 
I may try again during "spooky" season to see if it holds my attention a little better. I really wanted to enjoy this one since I enjoy true crime so much.
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