Model Spy by Shannon Greenland
I was predisposed to like Model Spy, the first book in Shannon Greenland’s The Specialist series. Between the pink cover and teenage-spy characters, Greenland would not have had a hard time writing a book I’d enjoy. Yet I struggled to get through this book.
Kelly James was orphaned as a child and shuttled from one foster home to another. She is also a genius. At only sixteen, she’s already in college, and the age difference between her and her classmates has left her feeling like an outsider for most of her life. Then Kelly is arrested for hacking into a government website. She was only doing it as a favor for a friend, but now she is faced with a choice: join a covert government program of teenage operatives nicknamed The Specialists or juvenile detention. One day in jail was enough for Kelly, so she joins The Specialists.
After proving herself in training, Kelly is tasked with her first mission: enrolling in a modeling school, undercover, as a model named Jade January to find a microchip that contains the location of a missing man. Although Kelly is a klutz, she is determined to do well and leaves for Eastern Europe with David, another Specialist; TL, the man who runs The Specialists; and Jonathan, The Specialists’ trainer, as her entourage. (Though why Jade January needs to go to a modeling school when she already has an agent, bodyguard, and personal photographer, I’m not exactly sure.)
My biggest stumbling block to enjoying Model Spy was Kelly’s verbal errors. When she gets flustered, her words don’t come out correctly. She doesn’t stutter, and the mistakes aren’t spoonerisms or malapropisms, nor are they errors of fluency or semantic errors. Instead, her words don’t come out in the proper order. For example, “Sorry, I was proton spread analyzing the” (p. 70), “…said you I would home base work” (p. 77), and “Looks like what this isn’t” (p. 141). I’m not a linguist, so I don’t know if errors can happen like this, but they didn’t seem, well, quite right. (If phrases are being switched, shouldn’t it be, “Sorry, I was proton spread the analyzing,” and why were articles dropped from the last two examples but not the first? Or are these errors actually correct but only look wrong on the page?) Regardless, I found them distracting enough that I was thrown out of the story whenever they happened. (I’ve been trying to stick to wading through my pile of TBR YA books recently, so this also gives me an excuse to read Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean by Michael Erard.)
Modeling school and linguistic distractions aside, the rest of the book was a fast read. I was often tempted to put it down and pick up something else instead, but the book was going by so quickly, so thoughtlessly and superficially, that I just finished it anyway knowing it wouldn’t take much time. I think superficial is a good word to describe the story. There are slick gadgets and good looking characters, but the book doesn’t really delve into motivation or ethics. What I like about the Alex Rider series is that, for all the two-dimensional villains and, yes, slick gadgets, morals do come in to play. Alex’s struggle between wanting normalcy and agreeing to missions when he’s the only one who can save lives, Mrs. Jones’ doubts about using Alex, not because she questions his skills, but whether it’s acceptable to use a teenager the way MI-6 is… Model Spy merely follows Kelly as she joins The Specialists, is trained, and goes on her first mission. It follows the action, and beyond some brief “he thinks of me as a sister” and “I’ve never lived anywhere permanently since my parents died” moments of angst on Kelly’s part, never explores anyone’s motivation—beyond staying out of jail/juvie—to my satisfaction. I suppose the fact that I actually finished the book is a point in its favor, and if you’re simply looking for insubstantial escapist fare, you could probably do worst than Model Spy. Certainly, based on reader reviews at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com, a lot of people do like the book. As for me, there are, thankfully, other teenage-spy books to look forward to.