Cover Image: In the Garden of Spite

In the Garden of Spite

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Member Reviews

From the first couple of chapters I could see where this book was going but that only added to the dread and horror as the novel progressed. What a smashing female serial killer novel! Having worked with abused children for 20 years and now my daughter working as director of a sexual assault center, I could clearly see the progression. Camilla Bruce did an excellent job showing us how a serial killer could be made. Loved this book!
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Jesus Christ, this was violent, spiteful and down right madness. Its one of those books that leave you thinking, "I can't believe what I just read". After all the shock and horror I totally forgot this was based on the real life Belle Gunness, an American Serial Killer in the late 1880's to 1900. 

This was truly exceptional and I am impressed yet still a little terrified. Camilla killed it (pun intended) . The character development was perfect and the way she brought this serial killer to life and added her own bits and pieces was amazing. What a perspective to write about! I can easily keep talking about this book but I may get carried away. You might as well just read it and see for yourself who this once a poor servant in Norway turn rich widow and serial killer in Indiana, United States.  

Trigger: physical abuse, gore

Thank you Berkley Publishing Group through Netgalley for providing me an e-arc copy of In the Garden of Spite by Camilla Brue in exchange for an honest review.
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Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for the ARC.

My hat is off to Camilla Bruce.  She has managed to paint an utterly convincing yet undoubtedly creepy portrait of Belle Gunness, female serial killer.  IN THE GARDEN OF SPITE is a well-researched and fascinating attempt to fill in the historical gaps of this true crime story.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and highly recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction with a bit of gore.
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A female serial killer in early times. An unlikable subject and character. predictable--you know men are getting killed but still held my interest .  I liked the character of the sister and the interplay with the children. 

Copy provided by the publisher and NetGalley
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I read the first couple chapters of this book, put it down and had absolutely no interest in continuing. A week or so later I made myself pick it back up and every day since I had to continue making myself read it. It was just so dull and drawn out.

Almost half of the story is told from POV of Belle's sister, most of which was unnecessary and didn't bring anything to the story. It was just her constantly suffering from her poor back and being suspicious of her sister but doing nothing about it.

As for the serial killer herself... I hated her. And not in the "love to hate" but in a "I can't stand reading about her anymore" kind of way. She was just a selfish woman who was constantly furious at somebody and did everything out of spite. At first I tried to empathize with Belle for going through some very traumatic things, but she quickly started getting on my nerves. Unfortunately, she wasn't a fascinating killer like Joe or Dexter (both of whom I love), she was just annoying and sometimes very stupid.
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First line: PERSONAL – comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts in LaPorte County, Indiana, desires to make the acquaintance of a gentleman equally well provided, with view of joining fortunes. No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit. Triflers need not apply.

Summary: Belle Gunness, a Norwegian immigrant, has learned some hard lessons early on. Upon her arrival in Chicago she married with the hopes of achieving the American dream. But the life she dreamed of did not come true. She was disappointed in her husband, home and lifestyle. She must make her own way in the world by any means necessary. Mysterious deaths, house fires and heated arguments the legend of the Black Widow of LaPorte begins to take hold.

My Thoughts: Before finding this book on Netgalley I had never heard of Belle Gunness. She was a female serial killer. She killed an estimated fourteen people but may be linked to many more. I was really intrigued by the premise, the story and the character of Belle. It was very disturbing to be inside her head. She rationalized everything she did. But even a book about a serial killer I found much of it to be drawn out. There was long periods of time passing and very little happening. I think that much of this could have been taken out and the story would have felt more thrilling.

After finishing I visited via the library’s learning databases. I wanted to see what the newspapers of the time were reporting about this woman. Many had the same headline or story. Then there was a resurgence of sightings and murders that some believed were connected to her. There is still lots of mystery around this century old murderer. It’s crazy how reality can be even stranger than fiction.

FYI: Very gruesome at parts.
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I was able to get a early copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Part of the publisher’s description”
An audacious novel of feminine rage about one of the most prolific female serial killers in American history--and the men who drove her to it.

This book was a good read that provides an account of real life serial killer in a enjoyable serving  of historical fiction.   Hoping my book club will select this one because the topics of evil being born or created; at what point does someone not realize what they are doing is wrong; and who is complicit in Bella’s crimes would make wonderful points of discussion!
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4 stars

Camilla Bruce is now on my list of must-read authors. Her interest in the darker elements of the female experience—and in this case, the sociopathic murderous elements—makes for fascinating reading. This was a great work. But it could have been shorter.

Concept: ★★★★★
Character portrayals: ★★★★★
Pacing/Length: ★★★

Have you heard the story of the Widow of La Porte? Belle Gunness' reign as one of the most prolific female series killers in early 1900s America is a chilling (and true) tale.

Belle Gunness was born Brynhild Storset in Norway in the 1800s to a poor family of rural tenants. Her earliest years are spent with vicious nurture and violent nature, and an early sexual encounter gone extremely sour—the author's editorializing at work with this fact, as this encounter is rumored in Norway but not officially confirmed--leads to her first murder. Little Brynhild poisons her abuser and likes the feeling of power she gets.

Little Byrnhild doesn't do well in Norway. The villagers whisper about her and her pride chafes at the knowledge that everyone in her small town knows of her shame. She writes to her older sister, Nellie, in America and desperately asks for her to help her.

Nellie agrees to fund Brynhild's voyage to America and takes her under her wing in a Norwegian-American apartment community in Chicago. Brynhild becomes Bella. Bella's pride, greed, and need for control over the men in her life lead to some dark decisions... and her sister Nellie begins to suspect that something is not all right with her sister.

As the years go by, Bella's life seems to be marked by obvious tragedy. Her husbands and children just keep...dying. And her homes and businesses just keep... burning down. What's up with that? Eventually, Bella moves to rural Indiana and marries Peter Gunness, her new persona as Belle Gunness begins. And once Peter suffers a tragic accident with a meat grinder—or cleaver, depending on who you ask—what's a twice-made widow to do with a huge farm but create an ad asking for male farm hands to come and help her? It's not exactly her fault if all the men disappear in the night...

The black widow spider creates her wicked web...

Told in two points of view, one from Belle herself and one from her sister, Nellie, In the Garden of Spite takes us along for the ride as we silently witness Belle's entire life from girlhood to her bloody reign as Belle Gunness on her murder farm. It's a chilling tale meant to unsettle, and Camilla Bruce's mastery of ominous, distanced writing really sells the tension throughout this almost 500-page novel.

But bringing up the length of this book brings up my only caveat—it was pretty long. In the marketing, the focus is entirely on Belle's time in La Porte as a murdering farm widow. This seems to be a bit misleading and definitely affected how I viewed the pacing of the book. When you start a book expecting to read a novelization of the Widow of La Porte....and then it takes 380 pages to get to Belle's life as "Belle Gunness" in the first place... Honestly, it made the first 3/4 of the novel feel incredibly slow. I kept waiting for the "real" plot to happen and that took away from the experience of reading the characters' life stories.

I'd definitely recommend going into this knowing that you're getting a life's story and not a snapshot novelization or a glorified true crime fixation.

This is a personal and chilling character study of one woman's descent into the darkest levels of the human psyche and her lack of acceptance of her own darkness. It's also about the toll that life on her loved ones, and the knife's edge between loving and protecting your family versus realizing the monster in your family tree.

Definitely read the author's note at the end - it gives a lot of context for Belle's real life, the amount of research the author used, and a key list of artistic differences that the author decided to take on in order to explore the themes.

Thank you to Berkley, Goodreads, and NetGalley for my giveaway ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
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In the Garden of Spite is an intriguing 19th and early 20th century historical fiction story with true crime leanings. Belle, formally known as Brynhild, is a Norwegian whose troubles in her homeland lead her to America where she joins her older sister Nellie in Chicago for a better life. When Nellie meets her at the train station, she is greeted by a less than cheerful sister and soon realizes that life with Belle isn’t a bed of roses.
People began to whisper about Belle and their suspicions of her, and bodies are piling up but that didn’t stop men from flocking to her! Longing for a life away from the city and to live on a farm, Belle gets her wish and sure enough, things get a lot more interesting.

But who is Belle Gunness?

Yeah, you’re really going to get to know her well by reading this book.
In the beginning of the story, I felt empathy for Belle. She was abused badly-to say the least-by the farmer’s son she worked for. Her family life was dysfunctional, stark, poverty-stricken, abusive and cruel. The people in her community did not look kindly on her family. Not long into the story my feelings for Belle took a turn when the she crosses over the forbidden boundary in taking a life.
What are the traits of a female serial killer? If you don’t already know, I think it is safe to say, you’ll discover quite a few of them in this tale.

Nellie observed troubling signs of Belle’s character when she was a child but never dreamed it would lead something so sinister. She can’t help but make excuses to herself to not take action. No one wants to think the worse of their kin.

As much as I tried to sympathize and understand Nellie’s inner turmoil, I struggled with the fact that when lives are being taken, she continued to be in a state of denial. Or was it fear? There are moments in life when you’ve got to stop making excuses for people. Murder would be one of them!

To make the story even more engrossing, Belle has a particular friend. His name is James Lee and they have a lot in common to say the least. It’s creepy how Belle and James discuss the killings so casually. Like it’s just a normal conversation about daily tasks and the like. It leaves you feeling quite unnerved yet morbidly fascinated. James is a bit of a mystery though. Other than being in Bella’s life, her support and a killer for hire, I often wondered how else he lived his life. Hmm…

The topic of serial killers’ is gruesome and some of the murder scenes in the book are a bit graphic, Bruce is careful not to delve too much into gory details in such a way, that it would be too disturbing to read. Her descriptions of the murderous acts, and Belle’s rationalizing the killings in her mind, gives you a clear picture of how truly wicked Belle is. Though Belle sees it differently. All she wants is a simple life, nice things, plenty of food on the table, a family that adores her and pig farm of her own. Is that too much to ask for?

I do enjoy reading true crime stories because I’m interested in the human mind. One can imagine psychological thrillers are not easy to write or research for that matter. You really have to dig deep in the minds of psychopaths if you want to be true to the subject. A scary place to be for sure, though not all of them are murderers, of course. This is the first book I’ve read by Bruce and I must say, this sub-genre is her niche-if you will. Despite the daunting premise, she definitely had me on edge throughout the book in a bizarre, entertaining sort-of way. She is a great story-teller and one heck of a writer.
Stephanie Hopkins
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So, I wanted to like this more than I did. Being a lover of murder, I am well aware of the various retellings of this story. In this fictionalized version, the main events stay true to form while others are most likely embellished and added upon. Nellie's chapters for instance which added really nothing to the story. The writing is also a bit tedious and overblown reminding me a lot of the older style of writing which I guess makes sense considering the years the novel is set in. Bt I found it a bit draining to slug through. 

It wasn't my jam but it will probably do better with readers who enjoy this era.
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considering I am not someone who likes historical fiction, I'm so surprised at how much I liked this! it was so interesting and I loved following Bella throughout her life. I also think it had some really interesting commentary on femininity & being a woman in the 18-1900's - commentary that still applies today. I don't know if I would necessarily call this horror - even though there is murder involved it just doesn't read like a "typical" horror novel. to me, it reads like a historical fictional memoir about a serial killer. I do think it was a little too long for my taste but of course that's a personal preference.
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Oh my gosh! This story was like a train wreck. I just couldn’t look away. Based on one of the most prolific female serial killers in America, the author doesn’t hold back in sharing Belle Gunness and her story.
I’m pretty sure Belle didn’t care much for anyone, but especially men. However, she did like money, and that was behind why she killed them. She started out in Chicago and eventually moved to a farm in La Porte, Ind., going through men all the while. People talked, of course, but nobody had any proof.
You’ve got to read this to find out the back story of her life and how she managed to carry out her murders.
There could be a film of this for sure!
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Thank you @berkleypub for our gifted review copy.⁣
My insatiable apppetite for true crime comes directly from my mother @nannarino The first time I went to the mall by myself, she regaled my friends and I with the story of Ted Bundy and we were all weary of anyone asking for help in a cast.⁣
As soon as I heard about Camilla Bruce’s IN THE GARDEN OF SPITE - about America’s first serial killer, Belle Gunness.⁣
“The author’s note really seals the deal on this incredible true crime novel. We see nature vs. nurture and we also see Belle who is dead set on what she believes and what she’s going to do. This is a long one, so be ready. While it is non-fiction, it doesn’t read like a textbook. The author is really descriptive and man, what a tale- I mean what a true story! It’s grisly, dark & everything I want in a true crime book.”⁣
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This book takes you on a serious psychological journey of a mad woman! This is a disturbing tale of an elaborate True Crime based telling. The written era is so very interesting in how it differs from our world today and the book completely captivated that. The inside look at the immigrant societies as a whole is very intriguing. The story is very long and drawn out, but there is something eventful in each chapter. The book is just far too long for what it had to offer and could definitely be condensed, I felt. 

**A very special “Thank You” to NetGalley and Berkley Publishing Group for this { #Gifted } copy to read and review!
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As someone who has had an interest in psychology for most of my life, I've always wondered about whether people who commit monstrous acts are born that way, created by circumstance, or a combination of both. And this book really speaks to that debate.

While the story IS based on a real person, aspects of it are creatively embellished (as detailed in the author's note). Belle Gunness starts life out as Brynhild Størset. We meet her as a teenager who works as a maid on a farm. She is pregnant by the son of the family who owns the farm, and fully expects that he's going to marry her. Her sense of entitlement leads her to try to force his hand, with disastrous results. When a brutal attack ends her hopes and her pregnancy, something kindles in her and she begins to let spite rule her life.

There are some major warning signs in Brynhild even before this event seems to flip a switch - she' grows up in an abusive household, and was molested at least once in childhood. Because her family was poor, she was discouraged from speaking up about the molestation, and had very little power over any of her circumstances. In addition, This attack triggered something in Brynhild and turned her from an angry and powerless young woman into what would eventually become a brutal and prolific serial killer.

When her sister helps her come to America, she reinvents herself as Bella, but can't quite leave certain parts of herself behind. I loved the dual points of view. While I initially empathized with Brynhild/Bella, as the book went on, I found it more and more difficult to like her as a character. She was such a vile character, and continually blamed, denied, and lied to others, even to herself. The other point of view was her sister, Nellie. It's always been extremely intriguing to me to see the differences between people who grow up in the same situation but turn out so differently. Nellie was kind, sweet, and empathetic, and while she had some inkling of what Bella was doing, as her older sister, she also had an ingrained response to protect Bella no matter what.

Even as I was horrified, I couldn't stop reading. It's graphic and brutal, and definitely not for the faint of heart. But it's an interesting take on a story that still doesn't have any clear answers - what really happened to Bella Gunness?
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Really enjoyed this one. I love how the author merged what actually happened (who Bella married, how she murdered some victims) and what is unknown (how she died, why she killed). Even though Bella wasn't ever a really likelable character I was still rooting for her and was interested in her getting away with her "enterprise." 

I liked Jame's character, her having a confidante was definitely a must have, but in the female driven book, it may have made the book a little better with another female who helped her. It may have been necessary for it to be a man though, being in the 1800s/early1900s.
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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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<<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.>>

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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