Monday, November 18, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: LARA'S GIFT by Annemarie O'Brien

LARA'S GIFT by Annemarie O'Brien (Knopf 2013)

What It's About (from the jacket flap):

Young Lara is being groomed in the family tradition to take over as Count Vorontsov’s next kennel steward, breeding borzoi dogs worthy of the Tsar. But when Lara’s baby brother is born, she finds herself supplanted as her father decides to make her brother the next kennel steward. Lara has a special gift of understanding these incredible dogs—a gift that her father eyes with fear and superstition. Can Lara convince him to let her fulfill her destiny with the noble borzoi? And can she save her favorite dog, Zar, and the rest of the borzoi from a hungry pack of wolves threatening life on the estate?

Opening Lines: "On the eve my beloved Ryczar was born, under a bright full moon, the north wind whistled and howled. Like a forest spirit gone mad with merriment, it ripped through the Woronzova Kennel and sprawling grounds of Count Vorontsov's grand country estate. All night long, icy flakes of windswept snow drummed against the stable windows until the last pup was born at dawn."

Why I Liked It:
Autobiographical note: I'm sure I've bragged here before about being a Brit--but what I haven't mentioned, I think, is that I am half-Russian. My mother's parents both fled from Russia during the Bolshevik revolution and settled in China, before fleeing once again as the Chinese communists closed in. I'm sure there's a novel in there somewhere! Apparently, my grandfather's family was of the minor Russian nobility, so perhaps that's why I have airs and graces above my station?
Anyway, I am interested in Russia, and all things Russian--and Lara's Gift did a beautiful job of taking me to pre-Revolutionary Russia. Countless times, Annemarie O'Brien did a masterful job of setting, particularly when writing of weather (as in the opening lines quoted above.)

The character of Lara: Lara has been an only child for many years, and as such she is in line to become the next kennel steward. She gravitates to taking care of the dogs, instead of doing needlework--she is essentially going against prescribed roles in her society. I loved how O'Brien built her character, especially with Lara's complex feelings after her brother Bohdan is born. She is jealous, but also full of love for her baby sibling. O'Brien has created a character who, throughout the novel, balances strength with tenderness.

Dogs: I learned a lot about the borzoi breed, which were dogs bred by the nobility for hunting. But, like Lara, these strong dogs also have a very tender side. Zar, the runt whom Lara saves at the beginning (shades of Charlotte's Web!) is extremely brave--to the point of tackling a wolf--but also loyal and gentle with Lara.

A sense of the supernatural: Lara's "gift" is that she has visions--flashes of sight where she can foretell the future. This puts her in conflict with her father, as the family's forebears have previously suffered because of a disastrous event which came about as a result of a vision. Lara's Papa tells her she must never reveal her visions, and Lara keeps her promise. However, the time comes when she must reveal what she knows, or else something terrible will befall those she loves. High stakes indeed!

Bottom Line: This is a delightful historical novel, beautifully rendered and researched, which I feel would be well-received by both girls and boys. I could see a teacher reading it aloud to a 5th or 6th grade class. And who doesn't love a brave and loyal dog?!

About the Author (from her website): 

Annemarie O’Brien has an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She teaches creative writing courses at UC Berkeley Extension, Stanford Continuing Studies, Pixar, and DreamWorks, as well as edits children’s books for Room to Read which advocates literacy in developing countries. Lara’s Gift is her debut middle grade novel inspired from a former life when she lived and worked in the former Soviet Union during the Gorbachev era and was gifted Dasha, her first borzoi puppy. WEBSITE Twitter

Annemarie O'Brien with her borzoi, Zola and Zar


  1. I love stories with animals and so does my daughter. Thanks for letting me know about this one!

  2. I enjoy books that don't look similar to half a dozen other ones on the shelf. I'll be adding this to my future read list. Thanks for featuring.

  3. Such a beautiful breed! And I love learning more about you and your background--fascinating!

  4. Wow! I hadn't even heard of this book before. I studied Russian in college (and my first novel is a Russian-based fantasy...). I need to read this!

    And I'd say there's definitely a novel in your half-Russian background.

  5. I've been wanting to read this! Thank you, sounds awesome!

  6. The excerpt is beautifully written, so I imagine this to be a delightful read. Thanks for highlighting it. My niece would love this. I'm off to read more about it. Thanks!


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