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REVIEW: Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen

Dear Mr. Cohen,
I should have known that picking up a sports book would not have yielded the best results from me.   You must understand that someone who has no real interest in them or the sporting culture will find a book that is over 400 pages and all about this rather ‘meh’ culture (in my opinion) hard to get into.   I got a copy for review and had to say it sounded interesting enough to potentially push past things.   Steroids?   Scandal?   The reader in me was intrigued.

Leverage Joshua COhenCuriosity killed the unprepared reader in this case.   It really did.   I came in expecting realism and got it, but it came with an incredible price on my emotional stability while reading it.   There is no denying that this book is good, at least in terms of what we often say a good book is made up of.   The prose is believable, the sports are pictured from someone who knows what they are talking about, and the book itself nets a hefty emotional reaction from the reader.

So why did the book make me want to vomit and throw it across the room?

Be warned, readers, for spoilers will follow following the plot summary

Danny is a skilled high school gymnast whose passion lies in the high bar.   The chalk on his fingers.   The feeling of his body twisting and turning in the air.   His athletic abilities are impressive for a sophomore, and that could mean a lot for him.   Winning a scholarship for gymnastics is his biggest goal.

This sporting year also includes a new student by the name of Kyle.   Kyle joins a different sector of the athletic world:   football.   He’s big and broad.   Just the type to be able to crush the competition on the football field.   Recruiting him was a no-brainer to ensure that Anooka High would have one hell of a football season.

Despite being on opposing ends of the sport world, Danny and Kyle strike up an uneasy friendship.     Danny feels alienated from his father now that his mother has been dead for several years.   Kyle feels alienated as well, but for different reasons.   Up until recently, Kyle had been living in a group home.   Now he’s living with a woman who smokes, drinks, and generally leaves him alone.

What haunts Kyle most of all – in the form of a speech inhibiting stutter – is the things that were done to him in that wayward house for teens.   He thinks that he’s escaped it all, until another house member finds him in Anooka…and he and Danny witness a horrific event that brings up all of the horrible feelings again.

Your characters were a success for the most part.   I say this with respect, because normally I don’t care much for sporty characters.   Danny got on my nerves at times with how he acted towards the general popularity issue with the football players versus the gymnasts and the cross-country people.   He was often very eager to just let things lie or go along with what the seniors were doing.   That kind of lemming action gets old when the character has enough sense to point out that the entire situation shouldn’t be going on to the extent that it does.

Kyle was more sympathetic.   Despite being the bigger and more stoic of the two, I liked him a lot more.   He has a gentleness about him that manages to be sweet without taking away from his masculinity.   His situation honestly just feels a lot more pressing and understandable.   Ignoring a difficult event is, to Kyle, a survival tactic so he doesn’t turn in on himself because of his mentally jarring past.

What made these characters – and pretty much the entire book – seem unlikable to me was the following scene that contains spoilers.

[spoiler]Following a gymnastics practice that Kyle sits in on (he wants to learn how to do a flip, which is very cute), a couple of football players come in and start bullying one of the freshman on the gymnastics team, as well as the senior/leader of the team.   These players are bullies and have also been partaking of steroids from Anooka’s football coach.   You can imagine how cruel they are. 

They are so cruel, in fact, that they take this kid and they rape him.   They sodomize him with a broomstick and rape him.   Danny, at the time, was hiding near the mats.   He luckily didn’t get seen by the football players, but his friend (the senior) did.   He was tied up so he wouldn’t interfere with whatever the football players did.

Danny’s position is such that he can see the rape going on.   He watches all of it.   Luckily enough, Kyle forgot his cell phone and comes back for it.   Watching the act reminds him of his abuse at the group home and sends him into a blind rage.   He beats up his football teammates and then promptly loses himself.   Danny unties his friend and tries to help the freshman, who is startled and in shock.

[/spoiler]

My problem with this is one that still makes me angry.   This is after reading the book a month or so ago.   They explicitly say not to tell.   Danny and the team leader both tell this kid to just go home, get a shower, and act like it never happened.   No hospital trip.   No telling an adult.   Nothing.

There will obviously be people that say this is realistic, and to an extent I can agree.   I could see this happening to some people.   The fact that they never told an adult – and thus cause this character to commit suicide later in the novel – just didn’t work for me.   That told me that I would consider these characters (Danny more so than Kyle) lemmings who put themselves above other people.

I know this isn’t the case entirely, but the reader in me did not buy for one second that not telling anyone was a viable option.   Because it just isn’t.   Slapping a happytime ending on a story like this didn’t help, either.   It just reinforced the idea that the ending lesson was worth it.   The one place where redemption could have been found in the realism found throughout the rest of the book, such the anti-gay sentiments of the football players, the partying, and the cruelty, was ended instead by an ending that makes things seem okay.

No-no-no-no-no!   Screw teaching sports players a lesson about not letting the bullies get advantage of you.   Screw promoting friendship with the teams.   Why not, instead, show the guilt and the rawness that the rape creates?   You leave the reader with the intention of saying things are okay, when the resolution is in no way something you would wish for.

*Note the paragraph below has some particular plot spoilers in regards to the ending.*

I understand the temptation to make the book end with a football victory – but I find it very unlikely that a team would be able to play a game at all when 1.) several players are found to be using steroids 2.) several of those players admit to raping a kid who later committed suicide 3.) the coach doesn’t seem to care about 1 and 2 and 4.) the coach supplied the kids from 1 with steroids in the first place.

Granted, I know little to nothing about the rules and regulations of high school football.   It’s just a lot to shirk off in one go.   All of that is admitted, and the bad people just don’t get to play in the game?   And they still win and everyone is happy?   I couldn’t buy it.

There were a lot of little things that were less personal and more just general narrative problems.   The book is rather long at over 400 pages, and the violence is very excessive.   Not to say that it’s bad to have violence, because it’s real, but there’s a lot of it and I’m not one for oversaturation of that kind of thing in a book.   It feels like the author doesn’t understand that they have shown me many scenes of its kind already, and that it doesn’t really advance the plot.

Other than the lack of a strong storyline throughout those more tedious pages, this book is technically sound.   Two narrators of different voices and types come and in reveal a lot about themselves.   Guys – especially sports lovers – will be attracted by the masculine cover and topics.   The writing is solid.   Yet as a reader I cannot console the portion of my brain that wants to scream ‘NO’ with the one that can analyze the writing.

An unpersonal grade would see this book at a B+, but a personal grade would see it an an F for that scene, it’s effect on the novel, and the logic that followed it.     Maybe it can find a reader that doesn’t have a squick point with this stuff.   I thought I was resilient, but (and this is neither compliment nor insult) this book really shook me up.

All the best,

John

Book Link| Amazon | BN | Borders

Ever since a good friend brought him a copy of Johanna Lindsey's Gentle Rogue, he has been hooked on the romance genre. Though he primarily reads in young-adult, he loves to spend time with paranormal, historical, and contemporary adult titles in-between books. Now, he finds himself juggling book reviews, school band, writing, and finding time to add to his TBR pile.

11 Comments

  1. Allie
    May 13, 2011 @ 15:00:56

    I’m glad I read this review and can now avoid this book. I don’t mind difficult issues or difficult (to read) scenes in a book, especially nonfiction, but in fiction I expect – more? better? Something. Something not in this book, I think.

    I even like sports books. It sounds like this went downhill after the one part and did not recover.

  2. Keishon
    May 13, 2011 @ 20:59:49

    I don’t know what to say only that I couldn’t read this. Thanks for the review.

  3. Wahoo Suze
    May 13, 2011 @ 21:32:03

    I used to love high-school sports romances, but stuff like this book (haven’t read it and won’t, thanks to this review–seriously, thank you) have begun to turn me off them.

    POSSIBLE SPOILER IN THIS COMMENT:

    Given the news a couple of weeks ago about the high school cheerleader who doesn’t have the right not to cheer for her rapist, explicitly and personally and by name for her rapist, and the entire community in Texas who blamed the 11 year old rape victim for damaging the sports careers of her rapists, I just can’t take it in fiction any more.

    If there was some sign of hope, of healing, of a hint that society can overcome this poison, that would be one thing. But to brush it under the rug and make “different types of athletes just need to get along” the message? No.

  4. Jake
    Dec 09, 2011 @ 13:48:43

    Goood review but his name is “Kurt” not Kyle….

  5. lecia
    Dec 24, 2011 @ 22:31:14

    I dated the author in college so I am a little biased. He’s been writing in his head and for practice and working thru story lines for a long time so this was a lot of work and effort, and deserves to not be bashed as badly as it is in this review. Please don’t be such a downer on the book, because you think it is too graphic and do not like some of the scenes. I think the point is that life can be hard, and people can be cruel, and sometimes no one gives a crap much in the end about what all has gone on before. That kinda stuff happens everyday. People live on the edge. Some keep it underneath and some act it out in suicides attempts, substance abuse, acting out weirdly, etc….. I am not a male. My Dad was a high school, college and pro football player. My sister made it to class 1 gymnastics (a level below elite). I used to be a teacher. So even though I am not male I do get what is going on. I’ve seen it before in different shapes and forms. There is no one set way that these things play out in real life. But this is a novel, and it cannot represent every situation. Try to take it for what it is– a slice of life fictional drama. Lighten up– it is a novel.

  6. Heather
    Jan 03, 2012 @ 19:10:25

    This is a great read. The horror and reality are tough to swallow, but necessary to the storytelling. And the main character’s name is Kurt not Kyle. I hope everyone gives it a shot, it’s a well-crafted novel. If the subject matter makes you uncomfortable, it’s done it’s job.

  7. john eggler
    Feb 04, 2012 @ 13:30:50

    I like YA books altho I am way beyond that age. I liked Danny and Kurt very much. I want to know so much more about them. Good sports read.

  8. Marita A. Hansen
    Mar 27, 2012 @ 22:36:19

    No matter what type of book it is everyone will have differing opinions, because no one’s taste is exactly a like. I write realistic fiction too and have people tell me I should’ve made a certain character suffer more, to maybe have a happier ending, whereas others disagree and say that is realistic. A writer can’t please everyone, just hopefully they please enough.

    Me personally, I thought “Leverage” was a fantastic read. Yes, it was incredibly intense at times, upsetting with some scenes, but the author still had me riveted to that page. Even though it was over 400 pages I read in within five days. It was hard to put down. I’ve recommended it to my friends on Goodreads.

  9. Mahleek Pilarski
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 07:53:26

    @Jake:
    Uhmm yeah the guys name is kurt not kyle…

  10. Dave Naranja
    Nov 11, 2012 @ 20:53:24

    This is an amazing book, and I would strongly recommend it to high school teachers and educators. I enjoyed the characters, the skeletons they carrry in the closet, and the way they are able to persevere beyond this. Kurt Brodsky and Danny are my favorite characters basically because they are telling the story from their perspective.Furthermore, the book does have some profanity and a horrifying scene that I wish to not give away. I read this book in three days because it is compelling. Any high school educator knows that there students who bully and victimize others who are weak. This book portrays those harsh realities. Moreover, to me the book also had an underdog “Rocky” theme through the character of Kurt.It also emphasizes the theme of “true friendship”, as evidenced by Kurt and Danny’s friendship. There will be scenes in the book that will have you laughing outloud, so read it with an open mind and enjoy it.

  11. Ashley
    Jul 20, 2013 @ 23:57:57

    I just finished reading this novel and I absolutely loved it. Being in high school myself, I feel like some of the situations and events happening in the book I can relate to. I will say it was very graphic and maybe a little over the top at times, but those are real things that happen to real people every day. I loved Cohen’s writing style in this book. I could hardly put it down when I was reading.

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