Friday, July 20, 2012

Book Review Friday: LEVERAGE, by Joshua C. Cohen

Today I'm reviewing Leverage, by Joshua C. Cohen. In case you missed it, please check out my interview of the author, Josh Cohen, AND enter the Giveaway for FREE, signed copy of Leverage, by clicking here.

Let's start with the description of Leverage from Goodreads:

"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."

Okay, this is accurate description - sort of. But I found it odd that nowhere in the description of this book does the publisher ever use the word "bully." And that's odd, since this is a book largely about bullying.

Yes, there is an ever-escalating prank war, but that makes it sound like what happens in the book is somehow the shared fault of the victim of things gone too far. And that is NOT how the book is written.

Yes, there are football players - and male gymnasts. Yes, they engage in a prank war. And yes, the school's pride - in fact the whole town's pride - in their football team is at the heart of the story. It informs as to why some of the characters make the choices they make.

But in Leverage, sports is part of the setting. It's the background of the human drama. And Leverage is, more than anything, a human drama, and a story about bullying.

In our social media age, bullying these days often takes the form of cyber-bullying. But in Leverage, bullying is the old-fashioned kind. "I'm big, you're small, therefore I can do to you what I want. And because I'm seen as popular (i.e. powerful), I'll get away with it." 

Bullying is pervasive in our society and it doesn't end when you become an adult. A person can be bullied at work, in their marriage, or even bullied by media. For that reason, books like Leverage are so important. We need to discuss this topic. We need to explore it. 

Leverage is not a sports book. It's a book about bullying, choices, courage and relationships - and that's why it's worth a read. So take the cover and the cover copy blurb (chosen by a publisher, not the author), with a grain of salt.

The story is told from two different perspectives - Danny and Kurt. Danny is a sophomore, small and a gymnast. Kurt is a large, hulking football player. He's not stupid, though his stutter makes him appear so. Danny and Kurt form a strange duo and an unlikely pair.

Of the two, I enjoyed Kurt - liked Kurt - so much more than Danny. Kurt's story is entirely sympathetic. We root for Kurt and hope that it all works out for him. Kurt is a well-crafted character and one of the highlights of the story. 

The poignant thing about reading a book like Leverage is that you just know that there are Kurt's out there. People who have suffered abuse like he has. Who have been dealt shitty cards like he has. You just  hope that real kids dealt cards like that find the inner fortitude that Kurt finds to do the right thing and to lift themselves out.

I am not a fan of sports stories. If it wasn't for hearing the author discuss this book at a book festival, I probably would not have picked it up based on the cover and description. I would have judged it by its cover.

I am so happy that I picked it up, despite the cover. Leverage is a tautly woven tale about making choices, about finding courage, and about the consequences of our actions. Cohen creates wonderful tension in the book. You know from the first couple of chapters that something bad is going to happen. You don't know what and you don't know when. But you know it's coming.

The "bad thing" that happens comes at about the 40% mark. And as a reader, I felt the tension - actually began to sweat - as the "bad thing" began to unfold. Author Cohen did a great job of "showing" just the right amount. The big scene isn't for those who cannot abide any form of sexual violence (fair warning). As someone who avoids contemporary realism (I love Ellen Hopkins' writing but find her books too harsh to read), I was able to read Leverage. The author didn't resort to sensationalizing the scene to emotionally manipulate the reader. 

The remainder of the book explores the aftermath of the horrible thing that happens. The main characters, the ones involved - even the town itself - is explored.

Joshua Cohen is a bright star of a writer, giving us a wonderful first book that makes us want more from him.

I highly recommend Leverage and give it:

 5 Hawks

A WORD OF CAUTION: Leverage deals with mature themes and includes graphic violence of a sexual nature. I do not recommend this book to those under 13, and give it a PG-13 rating.

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