Cover Image: In the Garden of Spite

In the Garden of Spite

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Whoa! This was such a chilling read, especially given its inspiration (Belle Gunness was a real serial killer). Eek! I love the way Camilla Bruce draws us into Belle's story and mindset piece by piece until we can understand how she might have gotten to where she did in her psyche. (Even while we spend the entire time horrified, biting our nails and wanting her to stop -- while knowing full well that she won't.) The story starts off with a BANG and the momentum never stops. There were quite a few moments where I squealed and thought DON'T DO IT! I love how Bruce kept the story suspenseful and appreciated the author's note at the end diving into her research.

I did appreciate seeing Belle from Nellie's perspective, in part because it would have been taxing to stay in Belle's twisted mind for the entire time. Though I will admit that it was a bit frustrating at times to watch Nellie delude herself. Regardless, I think it was well done (and that frustration isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it felt true to the situation).

This was one of my rare forays into historical horror and it was an enjoyable, chilling experience! Huge thank you to Berkley Pub for a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
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I have to walk carefully in the stacks when I'm looking to be scared: I love gothic creepiness and I adore a good ghost story but I can't really tolerate gore or anything that is too realistic. True crime is way too much for me.

In this historical novel imagining the life of 19th century serial killer Belle Gunness, Camilla Bruce manages to make a liar out of me. 

The key to this novel's almost shameful deliciousness is in Bruce's careful humanizing of Belle Gunness. Born Brynhild in a rural village in Norway, her life is marked by violence, lack of care, and cruelty. One atrocious act causes Brynhild to wrest revenge, and for a moment, I was almost with her.

But as Brynhild becomes Belle, and then Bella, things grow increasingly more grotesque, more suspicious, more terrifying, and it becomes impossible not to see just how terrible this monster is.

The novel alternates between Belle's point of view and that of Nellie, her older sister, and we walk the line between appreciating just how this monster came to be before being reminded of just how very wrong it is to sympathise with the monster. For me, that was the most masterful part of this novel: Bruce manages to make Belle feel realistic while also alien, and we're present for the horror without forgetting the actual victims. Everything is horrifying, but it isn't gross or gruesome. Belle's un-empathetic hunger is what gave me goosebumps while reading.

In the wonderful author's note at the end, Bruce discusses what she invented and what is known; as someone only vaguely familiar with Belle Gunness, I appreciated Bruce's postulations about how things might have happened.

Perfectly creepy, chilling, and impossible to put down.
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Based on the real life serial killer, Belle Gunness, this is a gruesome account of her life, her motivations, her loves, and her victims.   Belle comes from poor beginnings in Norway and suffers unthinkable abuse and brutality in her early years, but is determined to make a new life for herself in America, the land of opportunity.  And that she does.  Determined never to go hungry again, she enjoys spending money and designing a life without want.  What she wants, she quickly gets.  And with the help  of a devilish partner, she continuously reinvents herself and builds an “enterprise” of fraud and terror as a black widow.

The author does a fine job of painting the inner workings of a disturbed sociopathic mind.  She describes a world of abundance and the onslaught of decay in each iteration of Belle’s life.  It was also interesting to flip between Belle’s perspective and that of her sister’s.  With her sister, we consider the view from someone who loves a serial killer, her doubts, her excuses, her denial, protection, and eventual realization of the person her sister has become.  There is also folklore brought into the story and the theme of nature vs nurture in determining who we are.

The book felt too long, but overall, I was fascinated  by it and completely overwhelmed by the realization that it is largely based on actual events.  It was hard to comprehend, and sickening at times in its reality, but fascinating for sure!
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I found this book both thrilling and fascinating.. The author did a good job telling Belle's story while making it enjoyable to read. It made for a nice escape from the world on some cold gloomy winter nights. My thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for providing a galley of this book for review.
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3 words to describe this book: dark, brutal and fascinating.  This book is based on the life of Belle Gunness, who was also known as the Black Widow of La Porte, America's first documented female serial killer and possibly the most prolific.  She's credited with at least 40 murders in the areas of La Porte, Indiana and Chicago between 1884 and 1908.  Belle was born Brynhild Stortset in the tiny village of Selbu, Norway in 1859 to a poor family.  She emigrated to Chicago to live with her sister Nellie in her early 20's.  This book tells her story from the perspectives of Belle and her sister Nellie.  The author, Camilla Bruce, did meticulous research to try to piece together Belle's life and understand the woman behind the notorious reputation.  The author notes in the afterward that many parts of the story are factual, with fictional details added to fill in the blanks and speculate on her motivation.  Her story is very dark - circumstances were not kind to Belle as a child and young woman, which likely helped to shape her into the woman she became.  In her life, there followed a series of accidents, illnesses and arson that add up to much more than coincidence.   Her outlook and her methods were savagely violent - this book is not for the faint of heart. There's a lot of violence and gore. Although I wouldn't call Belle a likable character, being inside her mind makes the whole affair seem almost reasonable.  The men pushed her to it - what else could she do?  It was brutal, disturbing, and a total page turner that had me on the edge of my seat.  If you enjoy reading about serial killers, dark historical fiction, or true crime, you won't be able to put this book down.  Thank you to Berkley Pub and Netgalley for an e-ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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In the Garden of Spite is a fictionalized account of Belle Gunness, a notorious serial killer from 1884-1908. She lured her victims to her farm outside of LaPorte, Indiana via newspaper ads run in Chicago newspapers. The Widow Gunness needed someone to help her with her large farm and with her children. Only males with means and willing to pay a personal visit need apply. Before she was discovered, she killed forty men (at least.) She slipped away from the farm and was never brought to justice for the murders. 
The novel starts back in Belle’s home country of Norway, when Belle, then known as Little Brynhild Størset lived with her family in grinding poverty. Norway is where Little Brynhild first got away with murder, a feat she would repeat over her lifetime. 
Bruce’s novel is a mix of historical fiction, true crime, and suspense. She immerses the reader into Guinness’ world, and the result is a horrifying book that is difficult to put down. This is a book that will stick with me for a long time. 
Recommended. Bruce does a fantastic job of immersing the reader into Gunness’s world. The suspense level is high throughout the book, even though the ending isn’t a surprise.
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Why I liked it:
This novel presents feminine rage in a clear and concise manner. As the reader, you won't be tempted to forgive Belle's actions, but you will understand what led her to that moment. She's not a sympathetic character, but so much of her life is a reaction to the incident from her early years in Norway that I did not forget her humanity despite all of the gore.

What I would like to change:
There was a point, particularly after we arrived in La Porte, Indiana, where the plot began to feel very repetitive and where Belle's character stopped achieving any sort of growth. I know that it served the purpose of illustrating just how unchecked her crimes were at that time, but it did get a little tedious from the reading perspective.
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"We are all just creatures on this earth, fending for ourselves the best that we can. There is nothing unnatural about me. I walk the same pastures as any other. I am as natural as they come. There are just not many of my  kind."

Wow. what a story! This largely fictionalized account of the real serial killer, The Widow of La Porte, Belle Gunness, is very slow to start but when it takes off -- you will find it impossible to put down. Despite lengthy investigations, there is still no accurate tally of the number of men, women, and children she killed. Although remains were found on the farm she owned in Indiana, it is believed that there are many unaccounted for given anecdotal evidence and a great deal of suspicion. In fact, there is nothing found to indicate when and where she died. The narrative is told from the viewpoints of Belle (also known as Bella) and her sister, Nellie. 

The main feeling that I had while reading was that of dread. I could hardly believe that someone this evil was able to get away with what she did for so long. She is definitely a psychopath, very manipulative, and incredibly heinous. Everything she did was to protect herself and for money though there is an attempt to give her behavior a motive based on something that happened to her in Norway before she came to the United States. The author explains in an endnote that much of this novel is creative license, but if even a part of this is factual, it's a gruesome tale. Much of the book was quite difficult to read yet I could not stop reading as I had to know the extent of her terrible crimes. The truly scary part is to know that those murders essentially went unpunished and the many victims never got justice. 

Definitely you will need to find something light and sweet to calm your emotions once you've finished.

Thank you to NetGalley and Berkley Publishing Group for this e-book ARC to read, review, and recommend to those who can stomach it!
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** “People are so foolish; they beg to be deceived.” **

** “This is how curses are made: someone does something to another, and traps that person in a web with threads so fine they can hardly be seen. There is no escaping that web.” **

Camilla Bruce delivers a fictionalized telling of real life serial killer Belle Gunness in the incredibly intriguing “In the Garden of Spite.”

After Belle, born Brynhild Storset, is brutally attacked in her homeland of Norway as a teen, she first gets the deadly taste of revenge, which she takes with her to America as a young adult. The book follows Belle for the next three decades as she eventually gives into her fatal urges to always have more and not settling for less, all while acting out of spite.

“In the Garden of Spite” is a fascinating story of how a simple farm girl becomes one of America’s most notorious and earliest serial killers. It cautions against acting out of anger, spite and deception — and the dark road those emotions can take one down.

It also reminds us of the impact of the stains of sin, and that “Some stains won’t wash away.”

Blending truth and supposition, Bruce does an incredible job of researching the life of Belle, and what could have taken her down the dark road of murder.

Anyone who loves true crime stories, as well as tales about murder and serial killers, will love this story.

Disclaimer: “In the Garden of Spite” does contain a number of moments of intimacy, as well as occasional swearing.

Five stars out of five. 

Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House, provided this complimentary copy through NetGalley for my honest, unbiased review.
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The story line of this book was good and very interesting. The main character made me soooo mad!!!  How does someone like her not get caught???  The book really dragged in spots, but overall, I liked it. It is interesting to read about people in history, and in this case, a woman who got away with soooo much! @berkleypub
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I'm not sure what to call this book so I will settle on fact based historical fiction with a heavy leaning towards true crime. Although events have been changed and some characters invented it is based on the life of a Norwegian-American serial killer who was active in Illinois and Indiana between 1884 and 1908.

Belle Gunness is thought to have killed at least 14 people and possibly many more. Most of them were men she conned into marriage or the promise of marriage, and others who just got in her way. As the story opens. Belle (who is known as Brynhilde at that time) is an unhappy girl from a poor family who is abused at home and working as a maid. She is in love with a farmer's son and too naïve to understand that his family is considered above her station in life and that he will never marry her. I felt a lot of sympathy for her at first as she is left pregnant and in fear of the shame that will bring if the father of her child refuses to stand by her. When she threatens him it leads to horrific violence and it at this time she changes from naïve child to broken and vengeful woman. I think I still felt for her at this time even while she plotted and manipulated her way to America. Upon her arrival, her true nature starts to take over and it becomes clear that she has very little emotion other than rage. Belle views people only as something to be used to get what she wants. The author creates a very detailed, gripping and chilling account of the inner workings of a murderers mind.
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“We are all just creatures on this earth, fending for ourselves the best that we can. There is nothing unnatural about me. I walk the same pastures as any other. I am as natural as they come. There are just not many of my kind.”

A fictionalized account of infamous serial killer Belle Gunness, IN THE GARDEN OF SPITE takes readers on a journey from Belle’s tragic beginnings to her rise to wealthy, connected woman, with a trail of bodies in between. Known to many as The Butcher of Men, this book puts readers inside Belle’s head and we get to witness first hand every moment from the heartbreak and the tragedy, to the violence and the gore that eventually earns Gunness that well-earned moniker. 

Having just a passing familiarity with Gunness, this is a book that, when I first heard of it, I knew I needed to read. Serial killers in and of themselves are horrifically fascinating, and ones of the female persuasion are even more so. People speculate that it was rage that eventually drove Gunness to commit all of the heinous and horrific acts, and after reading this book and bearing witness to the many tragedies that befell Belle (even if they are mostly fiction), I’d believe it. Bruce does such a phenomenal job with making Gunness seem less a monster and more a mere human woman that it was difficult at times not to sympathize with her. Though let’s be real here — she is most definitely a sociopathic monster, even when you want to believe that perhaps that isn’t the case. 

Bruce stays true to the parts of Belle’s story that are common knowledge, and I love that she weaves in a lot of fiction among the fact. The bones of the true story are what this novel are built on, but it’s all of the extras — the made-up characters, the social events, the courting periods with her various husbands that give Gunness the personality we can only imagine she had in life. Bruce is an excellent storyteller, and this is certainly a book that was equal parts horrifying and entertaining. 4.5 stars, and now I’m off to fall down the Belle Gunness rabbit hole. (Seriously, it’s fascinating stuff!) 

*Many thanks to @netgalley and @berkleypub for the arc!
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I knew nothing about Belle Gunness before I saw this book offered on NetGalley, but it sounded interesting, so I requested it. And interesting it is.

Belle Gunness was a serial killer whose murderous spree stretched from 1884 to 1908. Born Brynhild Paulsdatter Storseth, she grew up in Norway, living an impoverished life as the daughter of a tenant farmer. After suffering abuse at the hands of men – her father, a local boy who got her pregnant – she vowed that she would have better, and she would not be subject to men’s torment.

She immigrated to America, following her sister Nellie, where she rechristened herself Bella, or Belle. The story is told from the viewpoints of both Belle and Nellie, and this gives us the chance to see not only Belle’s thought process, but Nellie’s. Nellie swings from convincing herself that everything is fine to being certain that something is very wrong with Belle, that she’ll have to act against her own sister. Honestly, I kind of wanted to smack Nellie for dithering so much and not doing something about Belle, but I can also see where she would have been terrified to actually try to stop the horrors unfolding.

Belle’s difficult formative years apparently impacted her deeply and brought out the worst in her. She is a difficult character to feel any kind of empathy for. She is grasping, greedy, always wanting more than what she has. She marries a good man, but that isn’t enough for her. She wants children and finds a way to acquire them (there really isn’t another word that fits), and she does love them, as best as she is able. But Belle’s desire for the good life, the best life, leads her to do horrible, brutal things.

This book isn’t for the squeamish. Belle’s murder methods aren’t gentle. She used a cleaver to dismember her victims for easier disposal. It’s not unnecessarily graphic just for shock value, but there’s really no nice way to write that.

It just boggled my mind as I read to think that all these men could vanish and have their disappearance go basically unquestioned, at least at first. In most instances, people seemed to take Belle at her word that the men had been there, but had gone on somewhere else. But then, I reminded myself that this was before the age of internet access and quick communication, that no one could log in and check these men’s credit card activity or phone records. But still. For a woman to be able to kill that many people, dispose of them, and then be able to get away with it for as long as she did is mind-blowing.

Ms. Bruce did her research, and the book is well-written. It isn’t an easy read due to the subject matter, but it is a fascinating look at an intriguing historical figure.

Thanks to NetGalley and Berkley for the advance reader copy. All opinions here are mine, and I don’t say nice things about books I don’t actually like.
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In the Garden of Spite is a dark historical fiction novel based on the life and crimes of Bella Gunness, the Black Widow of La Porte.

Told from the perspectives of Bella and her sister, Nellie, we see how Bella felt driven to commit the crimes she did. This story was incredibly written and the turn of the 20th century setting was beautifully crafted. I don’t usually love slow burns, but this one was perfectly done. It will build the world just to get you comfortable and a page later you’re in shock at what’s unfolding and you won’t be able to put it down.

This story is for true crime lovers and historical fiction fans with a strong stomach.
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Wow! I honestly had no idea what I was getting into with this book, the cover looked cool. I absolutely loved it. I loved and hated different characters. I was happy at times and frustrated at times. I didn't realize until the author's note that this was based on a true story. That made it even better for me! I want to research more about Belle Gunness!
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I love books on historical murderesses and this was an interesting in sight into a little known woman of history, I hadn’t heard of her before this novel and was pleasantly surprised to research the true story along with reading this fictional account. I will def keep this in mind for the few patrons who share similar likes.
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Whew Lordy! I had no idea Belle Sorenson even existed before this novel, but you bet your tushy I was googling her after this novel! I love when that happens. What a twisted woman! Her dark story and the writing had me gasping and turning pages. I love when a book has me both horrified by and sympathizing with a character whose morals are so obviously screwed up. It's very rare that we get a glimpse into a female serial killer, so this was a lot of fun for me! Which sounds so messed up when you put it like that, but it was a great book nonetheless!
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I received a complimentary ARC copy of In the Garden of Spite:A Novel of the Black Widow of La Porte by Camilla Bruce from NetGalley & Berkley Publishing Group in order to read and give an honest review.

... the author does an excellent job at getting inside the mind of this infamous serial killer...

This will be a challenging book for me to review I’m giving it a 3.5 but rounding it up to four stars. Part of me loved this book, but part of me, well...

For the positives, Camilla Bruce does such a fantastic job fictionalizing the story of a real-life serial killer Little Brynhild / Bella Sorenson / Gunnes aka "The Black Widow of La Porte". Well-written for the most part, the author does an excellent job at getting inside the mind of this infamous serial killer. Bruce’s characters were brilliantly brought to life, perhaps in the case of Bella, a little too well. On the negative side, although I do not shy away from dark books this was even a bit much for me. Warning for those faint of heart, this novel contains graphic violence, murder, dismemberment, sex, arson, child abuse and infanticide. I also found at times it was slow and repetitive which made it a struggle to get into.

The novel follows Little Brynhild/Bella through her young teenage years and into her middle age. We learn about a heartbreaking ordeal she experiences as a young teenager in Norway that leaves wounds that fester driving her to inflict damage onto all those who get close to her. The disconnect she feels towards her family and a rage that she cannot contain, drives Little Brynhild to leave the misery of Norway to join her sister Nellie in America. In America she takes the name Bella Sorenson and is disappointed in her first experience. Bella longs to make a happy and successful life for herself, constantly seeking acceptance from those in her adopted community. Having struggled for respect in Norway she knows what she wants and what she must do to reach the status she desires for her future. Bella is determined to be the perfect self-made, powerful woman and will go to any length and taking matters into her own hands in order to get what she feels she is due.

Being a fairly famous news story, many people who follow true crime are aware of this famous female serial killer, but the author manages to get inside this monster's head offering the reader a glimpse of what could have driven this woman to such destruction.

It is a well-written engaging fictional interpretation of the workings of this woman’s mind, but it was a little too graphic for my taste, nevertheless an intriguing read.
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Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for an e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Belle Sorenson was America's first serial killer. She kills men for their fortunes and nobody seems to be able to prove it. The story is set in the late 1800's / early 1900s, mostly after Bella's move to the United States. Her killings are justified - she has to do what she has to do to be successful in the world. 

I will start by saying this book is WAY out of my normal genre. I don't read too much historical fiction, and when I do it tends to be a romance. However something about the summary peeked my interest and I'm glad I got into it!

The characters in this book were so interesting! Little Brynhild / Bella/ Belle in particular was so complex, completely guiltless in her efforts to get what she wanted. From writing to her sister and secretly adding sentences from her "mom", to the suspicious situation with Anders at the lake, to her father, and all the men that followed, this book was quite a wild ride! She was so selfish, never content, and always wanted more. She really didn't let anyone get in her way.

I had a slow start getting into the book- as I mentioned, it was different than any other book I typically read. Once Bella arrived in the US I was more invested and it picked up. I finished it and read the author's note- I had no idea it was based on a true story! I think that Camilla Bruce created a world for us, based on facts, but embellished enough to make it a story.
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Content Warning: Murder, drugging, serial killer, child abuse, and loss of an infant. 

This book is not for the faint of heart. Belle Gunness is a woman who has learned the hard way that she has to rely on herself and must be crafty to get what she wants. We follow Belle through around 30 years of her life I believe. We see her go from a teenager in Norway to an adult in America living on a farm, so we get to see her change completely and kind of what caused this change to happen. 
Belle is a very crafty person and she knows how to get people to do what she wants to a certain extent and when that doesn't work she takes matters into her own hands so she can better herself from the situation in the end. The family was a big part of this story and how Belle wanted it, but also didn't always seem to want it at the same time. She was very much the type of person to want to have her cake and eat it too, which we know doesn't always work. The one rather surprising thing about Belle is how much she loves and taking care of them. This was rather shocking to me considering how many men she murdered. 

Overall I liked this book. It is very graphic at times because we see Belle dealing with the bodies and disposing of them.  It was interesting to see the different methods she would use depending on the person and why she would do it. Belle was very driven by money and power which is understandable considering what she had grown up in and how she didn't want to feel that way again. This book was a very fast-paced read for me. 

If you like true crime books, or just want to see things from a female serial killer's perspective for a change I think you'll like this book. 

I do think it's important to mention that the author did have to take some liberties when it came to parts of this book as little is known about Belle and public accounts vary greatly between people. There is also no clear number of how many men she killed.
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