PIEDMONT -- As a child, Annemarie O'Brien loved to read books that involved mysteries and dogs and were set in another country.
Now the Piedmont author has combined her three reading interests into "Lara's Gift," her debut novel for middle-grade readers (ages 8 to 12), enticing them with a story she describes as "Lassie-meets-Dr. Zhivago," a kid-dog tale set in early-1900s imperial Russia.
To understand how O'Brien developed this tale, one must follow the author back to the late 1980s, when she worked overseas with a Soviet technical consulting company. Being a dog lover, she decided to get herself a dog to bring back to the United States and, since she was in Russia, the obvious choice was a Russian-bred borzoi.
"I thought it would be very easy to get a borzoi, but it was very difficult because when the Bolsheviks killed the czar they killed off everything associated with him, including his dogs," she said. "So there weren't many of those dogs left."
A story in itself, O'Brien came back with Dasha and through the process learned a lot about Russian history.
"I always thought, 'Wow, this would be such a great story for kids because they could learn about Russia and its history in a fun way,' " O'Brien said.
In "Lara's Gift," 14-year-old Lara dreams of breeding borzoi in the tradition of her ancestors, and, while she's the only child, her father grooms her for the job. But the birth of a baby brother causes her father to decide that her brother will become the next kennel steward, putting aside all of Lara's gifts, skills, love and her sixth sense, or gift, about the dogs.
Throughout the story, readers follow Lara and her favorite borzoi, Zar, as they try to reach their goals -- Lara, to prove her father wrong about his decision and Zar, the runt of the litter, to be more than a lap dog and to hunt with the rest of the dogs.
In Lara, the author has created a young girl with a gift that she is unsure of, visions that her father thinks are evil and her mother says are a gift from God.
"Lara's father had visions, but he was told to get rid of them. Lara is also trying to get rid of them because she loves and adores her father and wants to do everything by his book," O'Brien said. "So she has to figure out -- does she use her gift or try to suppress it?"
O'Brien hopes her story will motivate young readers to follow their hearts and never give up and to trust their skills and do something with them. Thinking back to her own experiences throughout the world, the author urges others to travel and to see the world with open eyes to accept people's customs and traditions and learn from them.
"I hope readers will enjoy the story, and I hope it gives them strength to follow their own passions and heart so they can lead the life they are supposed to lead based on their own goals and ambitions," she said.
Today, O'Brien shares her home with her family, two borzoi, Zola and Zars, and a silken windhound, Zeus. Along with teaching creative writing courses at UC Berkeley, Stanford, Pixar and DreamWorks, the author is at work on a companion story to "Lara's Gift" set in the Mikhail Gorbachev era in the 1980s and early 1990s that will be about an older Lara and a new, younger person.
"I'm really excited because this is really the story that I set out to write, but people had too many questions about the dogs and didn't understand their importance," O'Brien said. "So I thought I'll have to go back in history and explain."
That's what O'Brien has done in "Lara's Gift," a story that explores the bond people have with their dogs as well as the strength within themselves. And as a tribute to all borzois past, present and future, O'Brien will donate a portion of the proceeds from the book to the national borzoi rescue organization.
A book launch for "Lara's Gift" by Piedmont author Annemarie O'Brien will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday at Ellen Driscoll Playhouse, 325 Highland Ave. in Piedmont. For more information, go to www.annemarieobrienauthor.com.