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Book Review: What Kind of Mother by Clay McLeod Chapman
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What Kind of Mother
Hardcover | Kindle | Audiobook
By Clay McLeod Chapman
Publisher: Quirk Books
Release Date: September 12, 2023

My grandma always says, “Where there’s a thought, there’s an image; where there’s an image, there’s an event.” If, like Grandma, you believe that thought projection leads to manifestation, then the events of What Kind of Mother will make perfect sense to you. If not, then when you get through the last third of this book by Clay McLeod Chapman, you’ll probably be like, “What the hell did I just read?!” Actually, you might think that either way, because wow does this story take a wild turn.

The premise seems tame enough. Madi Price returns to Brandywine, Virginia, the hometown she left as a pregnant teen over 16 years ago, so her daughter Kendra can finally get to know her hitherto absentee father, Donny. While Kendra is enjoying her time with her dad and his new family, Madi fears she’s losing her daughter now after having raised her all by herself. Life wasn’t exactly easy then, and it’s not much better now for Madi, who ekes out a living as a palm reader. One day while working her craft at the local farmers market, Madi is reunited with Henry McCabe, her old high school boyfriend, whose wife committed suicide five years prior when their infant son went missing. Sparks fly between the old sweethearts and as they get reacquainted, Henry convinces Madi to use her palm reading abilities to help him try to locate his son Skyler, who he’s never given up hope in finding.

Sounds innocent enough. Woman reluctantly returns to her hometown, ends up rekindling an old high school romance, and bonds with old boyfriend as they search for his missing child. There’s the tragedy of the missing child and an exploration into loss and grief obviously coming from Henry, but there’s also Madi’s own fears as her own daughter slowly disconnects from her. Obvious conclusion: Madi and Henry find the missing child safe and sound, get married, and live happily ever after as a blended family, right?

Well… not quite.

Leading up to the release of this book, the author and publisher have been describing it as “Nicholas Sparks meets The Empty Man.” And knowing the type of tales Chapman’s previously written, like the “Satanic Panic” theme of Whisper Down The Lane (a favorite of mine), I was expecting this Southern gothic folk tale about a missing child to be suspenseful, maybe a bit shocking, possibly even “scary” in the Whodunit? and/or “Am I sleeping with the killer?” kind of way. Brandywine is a small, quiet, gossipy kind of town, which basically makes everyone suspect in this type of book. Once Madi starts getting disturbing and harmful visions about Skyler’s possible whereabouts, I figured, ok, we’re in supernatural-tinged haunting thriller territory. But then the story ventures not only into the fantastical, but also the horrifically bizarre. It’s more like Nicholas Sparks meets Pet Sematary meets JAWS meets Frankenstein meets a few more things, but I don’t want to spoil the “what the fuck?” moments for you. Just know they’re coming.

The setting of the book is along the historic Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, which Chapman manages to bring to life as its own character in more ways than one. Henry is a local fisherman, with life in that area understandably centered on fishing, marine life, and water activities, which the author goes into great detail to describe. Things like duck blinds, dead rise boats, oyster shucking, crabbing, and more will be covered. Now, I’m a vegetarian, so reading about any living creature being harmed or killed, even if it’s for food, is not something I want to read about. That includes crabs and mussels — marine life that many humans don’t even believe feel pain (they do, fyi). But I’ll admit that Chapman got me so invested in this area of the country and these characters that instead of being annoyed by these parts, I actually took it as an opportunity to learn something. For instance, there are scenes where characters eat raw oysters, which normally I’d cringe at (yes, reading about oyster eating is more upsetting to me than the traditional horror elements). So I went online and watched videos about oysters and learned about oyster reefs and oyster conservation efforts. But I also realized early on that learning so much about the area’s marine life was actually integral to the story.

Thanks to Chapman’s ability to vividly set scenes and infuse traditional horror with interesting, unique twists — some will make you laugh; some will make you gasp; some will leave you scratching your head — the author has another winner on his hands with his latest novel. What Kind of Mother is an engrossing, unhinged, and emotional aquatic horror that explores parental love, loss, and desperation while delving into the weird and grotesque, as well as diving into the Chesapeake. I give this book five out of five open palms.

A note on the cover, design, and supplements: This is definitely one of my favorite covers of the year. Honestly, I try NOT to analyze covers BEFORE I read a book, but I love doing so afterwards. In this case, going back and really looking at the design by Elissa Flanigan made me realize just how fantastic this cover actually is. Quirk Publishers gave this release some extra attention with endpapers made to resemble greenish flowing water, with a matching black and white version in the Part openers throughout the book. Beneath the dust jacket is an off-white hardcover with the book title seemingly etched in sand. It’s details like these that will make me get the hardcover version of a book and keep it forever in my collection. At the back of the book is an Acknowledgments section, where the author includes some bibliographic info along with his thanks; there’s a Reading Group Guide with 12 discussion questions, which is super-fun, especially for those of us in Book Clubs; and finally a Soundtrack listing of songs the author recommends listening to that go along with the reading of this book (“Three Is a Magic Number” by Blind Melon being a particularly appropriate selection).

Ok, now just let me just gush a little here and say that Chapman has easily become one of my favorite writers. With the release of each of his books, I have that exciting feeling that I got in on the ground floor with an author (or even a movie or band, etc.) and soon everyone else will find out about them too. It’s how I felt in the 1980s with Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker; same when I read (and loved) the Game of Thrones books long before the TV adaptation. And then again in recent years with Grady Hendrix. It’s an amazing feeling to know you’ve found an author whose work is right up your alley and you can rely on. Plus, Chapman has a really cool social media presence, with images and videos that I would absolutely consider to be supplements to the novel. For instance, there’s videos he’s taken on and around the Chesapeake Bay area, showing viewers what actual duck blinds and deadrises look like. He’s also posting about each stop on his current book tour. You can find him on IG & Twitter at @claymcleod and on FB at claymcleodchapman.

“What Kind of Mother mixes Southern Gothic, a missing child story, and body horror into an entertaining brew sure to inform your nightmares.”—Paul Tremblay, author of The Cabin at the End of the World and A Head Full of Ghosts

After striking out on her own as a teen mom, Madi Price is forced to return to her hometown of Brandywine, Virginia, with her seventeen-year-old daughter. With nothing to her name, she scrapes together a living as a palm reader at the local farmers market.

It’s there that she connects with old high school flame Henry McCabe, now a reclusive local fisherman whose infant son, Skyler, went missing five years ago. Everyone in town is sure Skyler is dead, but when Madi reads Henry’s palm, she’s haunted by strange and disturbing visions that suggest otherwise. As she follows the thread of these visions, Madi discovers a terrifying nightmare waiting at the center of the labyrinth—and it’s coming for everyone she holds dear.

Combining supernatural horror with domestic suspense into a visceral exploration of parental grief, What Kind of Mother cements Clay McLeod Chapman’s reputation as a “star” (Vulture) and “the twenty-first century’s Richard Matheson” (Richard Chizmar, Chasing the Boogeyman.)

Hardcover: 304 pages; Book Dimensions: 6.27 x 1.07 x 9.31 inches

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