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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Review: Lara's Gift by Annemarie O'Brien

Lara's Gift
by Annemarie O'Brien
Pub Date: 8/6/13
Pub: Random House
Format: eARC
Source: via pub
Young Lara is being groomed in the family tradition to take over as Count Voronstov's next kennel steward, breeding borzoi dogs worthy of the Tsar. But then Lara's baby brother is born and she finds herself supplanted as her father decides to make her brother the next kennel steward. Going against her father's wishes and becoming increasingly sure of her special gift of understanding these incredible dogs, Lara risks everything when she reveals the truth about her visions. Now she must save Zar, her favorite borzoi and the one she raised from birth, from a hungry pack of wolves. Only then can she find her own, extraordinary destiny. . . .
I received a galley of this title in exchange for an honest review


Lara's Gift, by Annemarie O'Brien, is a lovely middle-grade historical fiction about a young girl in 1910 Russia. Young Lara comes from a long line of kennel stewards for the Voronstov family, and Lara loves working with the borzoi dogs. Lara has a dangerous secret, she has visions, visions that give her a special connection and bond with the borzoi, especially her favorite, Zar. She dreams of taking over as steward after her father, but when her mother gives birth to a son, Lara is forced to quit her work at the kennel and prepare to become a dressmaker and wife. But Lara is determined to prove her worth as a kennel steward and must learn to trust her special abilities to save the dogs she loves.

Lara's Gift is a wonderfully written, quick read with an original and captivating premise. O'Brien offers readers a look into a time and place that isn't often explored in middle-grade fiction, and the historical world-building is fantastic. Every detail of the 1910 Russian setting is carefully considered and laid out, creating a layered and believable world. Like with the Little House or Anne of Green Gables books, readers of Lara's Gift will feel as if they've been transported back in time and will love being immersed in this fascinating place. O'Brien also makes use of Russian vocabulary that would have been used by a girl like Lara in 1910. This lends a great deal of authenticity to the story, but can also overwhelm young readers. There's a glossary included in the back of the book and I suggest readers take a look at this before reading the book.

Lara's daily routine and tasks in the kennel are also laid out with a great deal of authenticity. The author has clearly done her research and this really shines through. The book is equal parts about Lara's daily life as a peasant girl in 1910 Russia and part thrilling nature story. O'Brien explores the natural world of 1910 Russia, particularly the world of the borzoi and wild wolves, vividly and without bias. There are scenes that contain blood and animals fighting to the death. These scenes aren't super gory or violent, but they are realistically written, and may upset younger readers who are sensitive to such things.

Lara's relationship with the borzoi, especially Zar, is what I enjoyed most about Lara's Gift. The bond between Lara and Zar reminds me of my little sister and her dog Rambo. There's something so pure and beautiful about the genuine love and friendship between Lara and Zar. This is a friendship that young readers will cling to and root for.

MY FINAL THOUGHTS: Lara's Gift is a wonderfully written historical fiction for middle-grade readers. Annemarie O'Brien has crafted an authentic, well-developed story with a captivating premise and memorable characters.


Annemarie O'Brien
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.