Thursday, February 17, 2011

Book Review: Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen


The football field is a battlefield

There’s an extraordinary price for victory at Oregrove High. It is paid on—and off—the football field. And it claims its victims without mercy—including the most innocent bystanders.

When a violent, steroid-infused, ever-escalating prank war has devastating consequences, an unlikely friendship between a talented but emotionally damaged fullback and a promising gymnast might hold the key to a school’s salvation.

Told in alternating voices and with unapologetic truth, Leverage illuminates the fierce loyalty, flawed justice, and hard-won optimism of two young athletes.


The Short Version:
Gritty, intense and emotional, Leverage is a striking blend of friendship, bullying, and coming of age. With two stunningly well developed male protagonists and a setting that is easy for any reader to relate to and understand, there are some poignant and gutting truths presented throughout, both blatantly and subtly. Though upper YA in content and language, and holding some scenes that are hard to stomach, Leverage holds nothing back when it comes to realism and impact.

The Extended Version:
Danny is a sophomore late for puberty and small in size, but a beast in the gym and on the parallel bars. Used to being pushed around and bullied, Danny does what he can to survive the day to day in a school run by massive football jocks. He is quiet but friendly, despite his large sense of self perseverance even to the point of a fault. Danny is able to see other points of view, and generally understands the meaning of being on a team and loyalty. Despite this, however, Danny’s weak and even hypocritical side is shown, fleshing him out into a multidimensional character. There are some scenes where he is admittedly someone to hate, but put in the setting Cohen has created and the build up to each of these events, his side is completely presented and understandable.

Kurt is misunderstood on so many levels, coming from a heartbreakingly rough past. Holding plenty of his own demons and baggage, he is the epitome of a gentle soul that has been broken a few times too many. He is huge in size, and certainly has hints of a darker side and a temper but as with Danny, Cohen has created the perfect blend of hints of danger and a side to dislike without letting it overrun the redeemable, respectable, and honorable sides of him. Kurt has a stutter, and his self image is affected appropriately, but he still maintains a certain air about him that sets him apart from many of his peers, especially on the football field. The changes in his mindset throughout the book, sparked by the varying events, is captivating and engaging in a way not many authors can nail.

There are several side characters that all have a powerful role in the book, some driving the plot more directly than others. The chain of events and snowball effect of things comes through strongly, and the back and forth between the different sports groups sets the stage perfectly. From the redeemable to the downright disgusting, each one is memorable in their own way.

Throughout the book, there is a very strong reminder of the notion that it is easy to judge from the outside, but not so easy to do “the right thing” when actually in the rough position. The bullying aspect, mixed in with the prank war but certainly more dangerous than any normal prank, carries a strong part of this book and Cohen has beautifully weaved the stories of not only a prime target but someone torn between his teammates who lead the pack and not stooping to that level. The prime shifting point of this book is completely unexpected and grotesque, sending shockwaves through the reader that last for the rest of the book. The concepts of bravery and facing fears, along with a beautiful blurring of right and wrong, lurk constantly through the story. There are beautiful and memorable messages and impacts, both subtle and slap in the face worthy. Things keep a steady pace, some parts of the book progressing quickly before easing down and showing the full fall out and impact.

While there is quite a bit of language, it isn’t for shock value or filler. Cohen’s intentions behind the use of every word is very clear, and has a strengthening effect overall. Admittedly, this is a very testosterone driven book, rapt with the male perspective but isn’t particularly sexual or even stereotypical in regards to boys. The focus of this book is on Danny and Kurt, and Cohen sticks to that endlessly and beautifully. From the steroids to the pranks to the final outcome, everything is, ultimately centered around these two boys and their responses and reactions to everything. No single event washes out the character focus, and watching the changes in both boys and their growing friendship is warming and encouraging.

Cohen does a remarkable job making the dual perspectives different, both of them distinct and readable while still being clearly something individual. While it is exhausting to read Kurt’s constant stuttering, it serves its purpose in letting the reader know full force what things are like for him. There are some gutting and unthinkable scenes in this book, but they are written in a way that isn’t graphic despite how clear it is what is actually happening.

With several explosive scenes and a few smoothly inserted and unexpected twists, Leverage grabs the reader from the first page and doesn’t let go even at the last one. With a soft but potent focused on right and wrong, and a lasting chain of events, this one shows many sides of human nature and differing personalities while throwing a shocking gauntlet at the characters. Cohen’s overall striking and beautifully developed characterization carries this book in a bold way, giving it a long lasting impact with lingering messages, presented in a very straightforward but effective way.

Source: ARC traded for with a fellow blogger
Reading level: Young Adult
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Publication Date: February 17, 2011


  1. Wow, this sounds fantastic! Great review, Kari!

  2. Excellent review as usual. I really wanna read this one and this review cements that fact.

  3. Glad to hear that you loved this one...It's been on my wishlist for some time! Thanks for the review. I am totally going to buy it now...It'll be a wishlist escapee!