Sunday, February 24, 2013

9 Heart Review: Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen

Joshua C. Cohen

Page Count: 425

Release Date: 27 September 2012 (reprint edition)
Publisher: Speak (Penguin)
Source: Complimentary copy provided by author in exchange for an honest and unbiased review (thank you!)
Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

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.


Sports fiction will always have a special place in my heart because it combines two of my favorite things: sports and... well... fiction (okay, shut up).

I grew up with Dan Gutman and Mike Lupica, but I think Leverage was probably my first venture into older teen sports fiction, and definitely my first one about football (which, might I add, is my all-time favorite spectator sport). I know by the blurb, it sounds like another Friday Night Lights, another head-butting, sweat-packed story about the strength that goes into football and the tough friendships formed along the way, but isn't—it definitely isn't. Leverage is much, much more: It's deeper, more tragic, and more grueling than any other sports novel I've read before, and it's an unexpectedly jarring, as well as unexpectedly hopeful story that everyone should be aware of.

There are so many different issues tackled in Leverage, including the nit 'n' grit of two very competitive varsity sports teams, the treacherous social structure of high school, and an unspeakable crime against innocence, that all throw outsider, Danny Meehan, into chaos. A determined gymnast and self-proclaimed "nobody," Danny knows better than to mess with Oregrove High's most powerful social circle: the football players. It hasn't been too long since I last cheered on my own high school football team in the stands, so I knew exactly the atmosphere, exactly the rush of the crowd, that Cohen portrays. I do feel his evocation is a bit exaggerated, because never have I met such mean high schoolers, nor such brutal teenagers, but then again, I'm no Danny Meehan; having never gone to school actually fearing for my safety, I've probably never noticed the great, disastrous social divide. 

When Kurt Brodsky, a terrifying rock of a fullback with a mysterious, painful past, treads softly onto Oregrove's social scene, Danny sees the school's dynamic doing a fabulous turnover. Suddenly, football players actually seem human, and he even builds up a little bit of courage for himself. All of this comes crashing down when he alone witnesses an inconceivable act of violence, and then is forced to live with the guilt of the ramifications that succeed it.

The hazardous burdens upon a faultless witness, as well as the morality that separates the bystanders from the perpetrators, are embodied seamlessly within Danny's conscience. I think Leverage is a book that everyone should be talking about, just for the hundred and one issues it raises on current events such as child abuse, sports security, and bullying.

I'm afraid to say anymore because I don't know if I could without spoiling the story/fangirling hard, but I will leave you with this: Leverage presents the darkest, most horrifying tragedy you could probably imagine in a contemporary teenage setting. I place this work of young adult fiction apart from others because while others may convey equal brute and equal atrocity, none has ever been so real, so realistic. 

Now, if Leverage was a film, it would be rated R, not only for disturbing content, but also for some language, violence, and sexuality. (Not that any of it was enough to bother me—with the exception of one stomach-dropping scene that literally made me tremble—but just a warning: this is most certainly not your sweet, chaste young adult read! I repeat, this is NOT YOUR SWEET, CHA-)

Someone cut me off. Anyway. I love Cohen's voice. Leverage is split up into two narratives: one of the smart, smart-assy Danny, and one of the worn and leather-hard, but still tender Kurt. The high school dynamic is perfectly captured—from the tiny little observances regarding teachers and their inability to ever be subtle, down to the reeking of every boys' locker rooms (don't ask me how I know what a boys' locker room smells like)—and this is mainly the reason why Leverage is so true-to-life, and why it hits so close to home. Like I mentioned before, some of the secondary characters (e.g. the inflatedly brainless football players and the overly determined coaches) are a bit too much; I understand the author meant to caricaturize specific stereotypes within these supporting characters, but it did make the story slightly unrealistic. Fortunately, our two protagonists are perfectly proportioned and perfectly probed, which contributed a lot to my enjoyment of the book.

Kurt was an easy character to like—the gentle giant with a huge heart. The slow uncovering of his secretive past is riveting, and his ultimate triumph astonishing. I loved reading about him warming up to Oregrove, and eventually overcoming his darkest of demons.

Danny was more difficult to sympathize with, even though he's portrayed as the "victim" in many cases, so scrawny and well, kind of a geek, as he is. His attitude is generally snobby and condescending (even on top of his acknowledgement of being at the bottom of the high school social ladder), but it helps shape the plot of the book; in fact, the shift we victoriously see within Danny is what shapes the entire climax, in the first place. While I can't say I immediately liked him, I can say he's a well-fleshed, well-written character essential to the book's procession. Cohen did an excellent job with the main characters.

Leverage is vicious and emotionally searing, but there's a lyrical ending note that makes it all worth it in the end. Leverage is definitely a harsh ride, but there are some weighty issues within it that readers will pick up and take to heart. I am truly impressed with Cohen's accurate representation of the modern high school dynamic, his hard-hitting revelations on injustice and corruption within a sports system, and the disturbing, crude consequences of teenage bullying he reveals is prevalent in society today. The overall complexity and depth of this simply-presented novel astound me.


Nothing is held back; raw, crude, vicious // Great portrayal of a high school // FOOTBALL! Need I say more? // Impressively dynamic characters // Intricate plot // Easy to read and follow


Some characters are too stereotypical // Flow of the writing sometimes gets dull


"Duh-duh-do you hear everything in muh-muh-my helmet?" I ask, feeling suddenly exposed.

"That's right, my friend." She smiles in a way that makes me bring a hand in front of my crotch. "Everything."


Leverage is a coming-of-age football novel that holds no barriers and has no inhibitions. It will take your breath away and have your blood pumping madly; the adrenaline players feel, readers will definitely feel, and that rush—that delirious heart-pounding, throbbing, thrilling sensation—will reverberate effortlessly through their spines. Tragic, appalling, but all-the-while confident and anchored in tone, this young adult story about the power of perseverance and the importance of keeping courage—even if only for a few minutes longer—is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. Fans will go wild over Joshua C. Cohen's stunning debut Americanflag

9 hearts: Loved it! This book has a spot on my favorites shelf (x)