CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 24. . . .March 3, 2017
Short for Chameleon.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2017.
244 pp., trade pbk., $17.99.
Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.
Review by Susie Wilson.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
An old lady was having trouble getting down the wheelchair ramp. I went to help her. I was a dick perhaps, but at least I was a gentleman dick.
“Need a hand?”
The lady went, “Would everybody please stop treating me like I’m some jeezly double amputee!” and that’s when I realized it was Albertina. No wig, no false eyelashes, skinny grey lips. She’d even traded her high heels for fuzzy slippers. She was totally unrecognizable.
She rolled down the ramp to the car. Raylene had her hands on either side of her face and was going, “Whoa. Awesome disguise!” as if Albertina’s “disguise” was something she’d put on, as opposed to something she’d taken off and stuffed in her purse.
“With teeth or without?” she asked, and gave us a gummy smile.
“Without,” Raylene said. “Definitely without.”
We got in the car. I pretended to sulk while Albertina told us what we had to do. It was a little hard to understand her toothless, but basically she seemed to be saying we were the lead on this one. Her job was just to sit there looking senile while we pretended to be checking out an adult daycare for her. One of us had to distract the owner. The other had to snoop around the place.
“Get lots of pictures.” I hadn’t realized until that moment that one of the reasons people have teeth is to keep spit from spraying all over the place when they talk. “I want to know all the dirt on this gal. Where she lives. Her family. Her hobbies. Her pets. A little DNA would be nice too, but only if you can manage to get a cheek swab without arousing suspicion. When you’re done, I want to be able to build a life-sized replica of her from your notes.
Vicki Grant’s Short for Chameleon is a delightful, quirky, and engaging read. Told in the first person by Cam (short for Cameron, and not Chameleon), this book immerses the reader in the just-a-bit-too-campy-to-be-real world where Almost Family Surrogate Agency, aka Cam and his dad Will (a washed up former boy band star) operate a business of renting themselves out as fake family members for parties, funerals, and other occasions one would normally expect real family members to attend. It is during one of these gigs that Cam gets mixed up with Albertina Legge, a woman who can only be described as a tough old broad. Albertina, a self-described scam buster looking to stop people taking advantage of the senior population, cons Cam into being her sidekick by making up some far-fetched code violations being perpetrated by Almost Family and promising to not turn them in in exchange for his help.
Along the way, Cam meets Raylene, a hard-to-pin-down girl who shows up at his door looking to rent a brother for reasons not yet revealed. The two of them pose as Albertina’s grandchildren and help her investigate a number of her ‘files’, from a ‘psychic’ who can pass on messages from beyond the grave and cure any illness to a pharmacist willing to give drug refills without a prescription to a senior’s daycare that doesn’t seem to have anything underhanded in its operation. While some of these targets are definitely up to no good, there is definitely something else less nefarious that Albertina is investigating, though she never lets on what it is. While going after the ‘big one’, a former Ponzi-scheme runner turned restauranteur named Wade Schmidt, Albertina dies. Cam, Raylene, and Suraj, Cam’s best friend, decide to pick up where Albertina left off and shut Wade Schmidt down for good. Through their work, they not only get the bad guy, but they solve the mystery of Albertina’s past that led her down this road to begin with. This is where I’m going to leave the plot summary because it is really too good to spoil anything further ahead. I’ll give you one hint, though – Dalton, former lawyer who uses Almost Family to keep up appearances by having his ‘son’ and ‘grandson’ visit him while he does time for stealing money from his clients, becomes an indispensable part of the mystery-solving team.
There are so many little twists, turns, and secrets revealed over the course of this book that it would take away a lot of its magic to reveal them. A lot of this has to do with how well developed these characters all are. I bet Vicki Grant would be able to tell you what Will’s favourite meal from the cafeteria was in high school, the back stories are so well-thought-out and detailed. As readers learn more about the characters, their behaviours that previously seemed odd make sense. There is a deliberateness to the decisions that isn’t always found in more lighthearted fiction (YA or otherwise) that make the whole world Grant has created come to life. Does Will’s relationship with Cam seem a little immature and non-parental? Not once you remember that Will is a washed up former boy-band star who nobody even recognises anymore. Much in the same way, as we learn more and more about both Albertina and Raylene the reasons for their actions all start to fall into place. The consistency of the world is astounding and has created an incredibly immersive read.
The tone of Short for Chameleon will appeal to teenagers and adults alike. There’s a little bit of camp, a little bit of film noir, and a slightly larger dose of self-aware precocious teenager that all blend together into a slightly larger than life world. Cam’s voice isn’t really the voice of a teenaged boy in our reality, but he fits right in to the world Grant created. The pace is quick, the action is exciting, and, while Cam’s romantic feelings for Raylene are sometimes almost over the top, they never get in the way of the plot. Short for Chameleon will definitely appeal to teenagers who are already readers, and it will likely attract readers who aren’t into standard genre fiction. It is also an excellent book for precocious pre-teens who are reading ahead of their age level but might not be mature enough for the content of many books written for an older teenage audience.
Susie Wilson is the Data Services Librarian at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, BC. When she isn’t solving statistical mysteries, she likes to curl up with a hot cup of coffee and a really great book.
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