Head of the River by Pip Harry: not just a book for rowers

Title: head of the riverHead of the River

Author: Pip Harry

Genre: YA contemporary

Length: 304 pages

Published by: UQP (University of Queensland Press)

Published on: June 25th 2014

Source: received in exchange for review – thanks, UQP!


It’s the most elite school sporting event in the country. Nine rowers, 2000 gruelling metres and one chance for glory in the ultimate team sport. Sit forward … ROW.

Tall, gifted and the offspring of Olympians, superstar siblings Leni and Cristian Popescu are set to row Harley Grammar to victory in the Head of the River.
With six months until the big race, the twins can’t lose. Or can they?

When Cristian is seduced by the easy route of performance-enhancing drugs, and Leni is suffocated with self-doubt, their bright futures start to fade. Juggling family, high expectations, study, break-ups, new relationships and wild parties, the pressure starts to build.

As the final moments tick down to the big race, who’ll make it to the start line? And who’ll plummet from grace?


You don’t need to like rowing in order to enjoy this book. Or even know anything about it (I certainly don’t). You don’t even need to like sport.

Take me, for example. I am a great believer in the power of INSIDE over outside. As Neil Gaiman has so kindly summarised for me:

I know nothing about rowing. Okay, I know that Australia’s pretty good at it. And I know that it gives you calluses, because a guy in my grade at school is a rower. So I wasn’t ridiculously excited for this book, because I didn’t think I would be able to relate to it.

I am happy to say that I was wrong. 

Head of the River is told in a twin POV…literally. Cristian and his twin sister Leni, children of Olympic rowers, switch between telling the story. Cristian’s story involved emotional eating, taking up drugs and lack of self-esteem. Leni’s, meanwhile, was more about the pressure of the sport and learning to work within a team.

Despite having such pressure, being kids of Olympians, I absolutely LOVED the parents in this story (parental involvement, hooray!). The Dad, Vasile Popescu (yes, I am proud I remembered his name), is Romanian and doesn’t speak the best English. He pushes his kids but he also wants the best for them. The Mum is more laid-back, with the attitude that it doesn’t matter what happens – she still loves her kids. And she’s always looking out for Leni and Cris.

So we have Cris. In a switch of the usual, he’s the one who has issues with his weight, rather than from a female’s POV – which was really great, since eating disorders are not something only girls suffer from. You don’t see that often in YA. He turns to drugs as a way to enhance his performance, and his thought process was well-written – going in circles from “I have to do this” to “What if people find out?”

circles animated GIF

Then there’s Leni. She’s the over-achiever, the one who gets straight A’s as well as being a champion rower. I think I could relate to her a lot better than I could to Cris – she responds to the pressure by trying even harder, and there’s no release for her, because even the thing she loves (rowing) is a competition. So I could relate to her really well.

Both of the twins often reminisce to the start of their rowing, how none of it mattered. Both of them sometimes deal with their issues in ways that aren’t the best, but it’s also a growing process for both of them, and there was a lot of character development there. Leni loosens up a bit and eventually is able to work in a team and have fun with the other girls.


There were a few things I wasn’t so keen on, though.

Cristian’s main conflict, right towards the end, felt rushed to me – we didn’t see all the consequences of what he’d done, and he seemed (to me, at least) to get off pretty lightly.

I also wasn’t crazy about the romance sub-plots, because I didn’t feel they were that necessary in what was already a strong story.

Then there was the final ending, which was ABSOLUTELY heartbreaking and a clear message to sportspeople in general – like before, it felt really rushed and there wasn’t enough build-up for it. It kind of came out of nowhere. Well, not out of nowhere because it was hinted in the very beginning. But it had an almost tacked-on effect which felt…not quite as though it was added for shock value, but as though it wasn’t particularly necessary.

In the end, though, I really did love the twins’ stories, the cautions about using drugs, and the unique use of rowing as the framework for the story. This is one to read regardless of how much you like sport.


Rating: 3.5/5 Wonderkitties


And tell me: what’s your favourite sport? (mine’s Quidditch) Also, would you read a book even if the main focus was something you had no interest in?


9 thoughts on “Head of the River by Pip Harry: not just a book for rowers

  1. Favourite sport is definitely Quidditch. Or seeing how quickly I can get from the fridge back to my laptop. That’s totally a sport, right?? 😉 Honestly, to me, it doesn’t matter what the main character is interested in. If it’s a well-written novel, then the reader is going to be able to feel their passion through the writing, and that’s all that matters. Yet sometimes when technical terms, like in sport or whatever, are thrown into the novel, then I’d start to feel disconnected with the main character… just because I have no idea what they’re on about. But it wouldn’t actually prevent me from reading a novel. Great review! I think I might read this one some time. 🙂

    • Hell yeah to Quidditch! Best sport there is. I agree with you, actually – if it’s well-written it should be relatable to more than just those interested in the particular thing. And in this one, the technical terms were done SO well I didn’t even need the glossary 🙂

  2. If we’re talking realistically, my favorite sport is a tie between dodgeball (I DONT CARE IF ITS NOT AN ACTUAL SPORT) and Volleyball. But everyone loves Quidditch. In all honesty, if a book focuses on a subject I have no knowledge about and/or don’t really care about, I’ll definitely be less inclined to read it but.. there have been times where I read a book in spite of my own reservations.

    I am really glad to hear you enjoyed this one, Emily. It sounds like a powerful novel that has a lot of important issues thrown in but I am not surprised that the resolutions weren’t as great as they could be. With so many issues floating around.. I think it could be hard to resolve everything in a ‘clean cut’ manner.

    Eeek definitely not keen on the sound of romantic subplots. I feel like some books just don’t need them and this is definitely a book that wouldn’t especially since there are SOO many other things going on!

    Anyway LOVELY review, Emily! 🙂

    • Dodgeball is so much fun! I can totally see why it’s your favourite 🙂 I think if a book is based on something I have no interest in, I wouldn’t necessarily pick it up of my own accord, but definitely with a recommendation.

      Yes to the “too many issues” – I mean a lot of things happen in teenagers’ lives, but enough is enough sometimes, I think, especially in such a short novel.

  3. My favorite sport is Badminton. Me and my friends liked playing it and also, biking!(Is that a sport?) 🙂

    And yes, I’ll still read something even though I have no idea about it’s main focus because I like exploring new things and learning about them. I mean, everything started that way right? I started reading even though I wasn’t too keen at the idea at first and it was like coming into unfamiliar territory… but now, it was the love of my life! LOL. I believe in giving every book a chance especially when someone I know had praised it. Great review! 😀

    • Biking is excellent! It can be such fun. I’ve played badminton before and thought it was boring, but each to their own.

      Ooooh yes, good point – discovering new things is so easy with books 🙂 I’ve learnt so much from them. Hahaha, reading is such a good example of that. Although I’ve always loved reading 😛

  4. My favourite sport is softball! Or eating, I think that’s a sport in some countries 😛 For me, I’d probably skip a book if the subject does not interest me. I will give it a go though if it comes recommended by a friend or a blogger. Rowing is definitely not a plot that I’ve come across, and if it wasn’t for your review, I might not ever have looked twice at this book. BUT, I find it very intriguing. I feel like I can already predict how the ending goes, but it’s still interesting to see a book from a twin POV, and dealing with issues like weight for a guy. Very refreshing! Great review Em, this has definitely piqued my interest 🙂

  5. So, you get a like simply for saying Quidditch is your favourite sport, as that’s the only one I play since I stopped ice-skating (the rink I used is now too far from uni). Anyway, sounds like a cool book. Though I’d have to read to see, I agree that a romantic subplot is probably not necessary – the book sounds so crammed with themes already that, personally, romance would be the last thing on my mind.

    Of, and the Simpson gif. I love that Bart’s soul episode. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Stacking the Shelves and Weekly Updates | The Loony Teen Writer

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