April 27, 2017

Short for Chameleon

Written by Vicki Grant
HarperTrophy Canada
242 pp.
Ages 12+
April 2017

Hold onto that funny bone because it will be sprained from overuse if you read Vicki Grant's newest young adult novel Short for Chameleon in one sitting.  Take your time to savour the delicious humour that saturates her writing because, like a great meal, it's over far too quickly.

Cam is short for Cameron and he works with his dad, former sitcom actor William Redden, playing the roles of family members for anyone who'll pay the Almost Family Surrogate Agency.  Apparently the renting of family is not uncommon in some countries like Japan where Dad had tried to revive his failing career.  Now he and Cam and others in their employ shape and dress themselves into whatever the client needs: grieving son and grandson at a funeral; family visitors to prison; eye-candy for a high school reunion; whatever.  But getting recognized would not be good for business.  After all, you can't be remembered as a repeat grieving father and son at multiple grandmothers' funerals.

So when the wheelchair-bound Albertina Legge approaches them at one funeral, identifying them at scammers, Dad is pretty nervous, "sweating like a high-wire walker in a typhoon." (pg. 4) Unbeknownst to Dad, Albertina engages Cam to assist her in some scam-busting, all the while threatening him with revealing their lack of certification for a variety of government health regulations.  At fifteen and a half, Cam is none the wiser to her shenanigans, and goes along with her demands to assist her in investigations of scams upon seniors.  But things become more enticing for Cam when teen Raylene shows up hoping to hire a brother and gets involved as another sidekick of Albertina's.

Albertina's marks include the pharmacist she cons into refilling prescriptions, and the healer and medium Dr. Blaine T. Morley (to whom countless elderly streamed "like a scene from some zombie apocalypse movie, except with fewer missing body parts and more elastic-waist pants"; pg. 51) whose scamming she reveals to a crowd of devotees.  But she's got her sights set on two big scores: one against  a restaurateur named Lorenzo Martinelli whom she recognizes as the former investment cheat Wade Schmidt, and also looking into a young woman named Janie Aikens running the Time of Our Lives Adult Daycare. All the while, Cam is trying to get closer to Raylene, learn about her family and maybe get her interested in him like he is in her.

But like a British farce in which you can't tell who's telling the truth, Short for Chameleon is rife with scammers.  From Cam whose full name seems better suited to Chameleon rather than Cameron, and Raylene who keeps ditching him whenever he gets too close to learning the truth about her, to Albertina who has more than one agenda and doesn't care how she achieves what she wants, because going gently into the night is not an option for her.
"... she seemed a tad too alive–fuchsia lips, hair like Marge Simpson's only in a tasteful shade of tangerine, not to mention a good fifteen inches of wrinkly cleavage that made me think of the mighty Amazon snaking its way down the relief map I made in Mr. Jackman's geography class." (pg. 2)
Like life which is truly bittersweet for most of us, Short for Chameleon highlights the humour and the sadness of reality.  Doesn't matter whether you're a kid, a teen, an adult or an elderly person on the cusp of the end, life is not easy, there always being moments of grief and brightness.  All you can do is hope that sometimes there's someone there with you to share life's load.  (And if there isn't, there's always a rent-a-family agency around the corner to fill the need.  At least there is in Vicki Grant's Short for Chameleon.)

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