The Ivory Key: A Review

The Ivory Key by Akshaya RamanAshoka has always been known for its magic–a prized resource mined from the quarry beneath the kingdom’s palace.

But the magic is running out.

Newly named maharani after her mother’s sudden death, Vira won’t let losing the kingdom’s magic be her legacy. Not when following a trail of ancient riddles and clues to find the mythical Ivory Key could unlock more magic quarries.

Ronak, Vira’s twin brother, has always been more interested in studying the past like their Papa than in preparing for his future. With royal expectations closing in around him, Ronak will do anything to get away. Even promising to secure the Ivory Key for a dangerous mercenary.

Kaleb has never felt like a half-brother to any of the royal siblings. But his Lyrian birth mother is enough evidence to imprison him for the previous maharani’s assassination. Helping Vira find the Ivory Key could clear Kaleb’s name. But that still might not be enough to reclaim his old life.

Riya has been happy in the two years since she left the palace behind. Now, drawn into the hunt for the key with her siblings, Riya will have to choose between her obligations to her family and her loyalties to the Ravens–the group of rebels that took her in when she had nothing and no one.

Four siblings, one magical artifact, centuries of secrets in The Ivory Key (2022) by Akshaya Raman.

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The Ivory Key is Raman’s first novel and the start of an India-inspired duology. The main characters are all brown skinned and Ashokan (a name commonly associated with ancient India) while the neighboring Lyrians are described as fairer skinned. The story alternates between close third person perspectives following the four siblings.

Raman takes her time building out the world of The Ivory Key dropping hints about each character’s backstory alongside details of the political landscape that threatens Ashoka’s future. A well-developed and unique magic system underscore the urgency of Vira’s search for the Ivory Key although that part of the plot is slow to start.

Balancing four points of view is challenging and something that makes the first half of The Ivory Key drag as characters are introduced and tensions build. Once the four royal siblings reluctantly begin working together to find the key, the story starts to pick up and feels more like the adventure promised in the synopsis.

Hints of romance add dimension to the story and drama to one of the book’s biggest reveals although most of the story is squarely focused on the fractious relationships between Vira, Ronak, Kaleb, and Riya. A rushed final act introduces new twists and obstacles for all of the siblings as their paths once again diverge leaving each primed for an exciting conclusion to this duology in the next installment.

The Ivory Key is a sweeping, politically charged adventure where action and the search for magic are balanced by court intrigue and maneuvering; a dramatic story that isn’t afraid to take its time to draw readers in.

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faisal, Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim, Sisters of the Snake by Sarena Nanua and Sasha Nanua, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves: A Review

“Nothing taken, nothing given.”

Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves by Meg LongEvery species on the frozen planet of Tundar is predatory. When everything has sharp teeth and sharper claws, the people have to be hard too. Including seventeen-year-old Sena Korhosen.

Sena never loved Tundar–it’s not a planet that engenders love–but she loved her mothers and the home they made for her on the planet between Tundar’s infamous sled race seasons.

They both died in the last race. Sena has been struggling to pay her way off the planet and away from its painful memories ever since.

After angering a local gangster, Sena is out of time to earn her way off the planet. Instead she has to accept a dangerous bargain leading a team of scientists through Tundar’s sled race while trying to protect Iska, the prize fighting wolf she never wanted to let herself care about.

Haunted by memories and grief, predators, and her enemies, Sena will have to use all of her wits and her strength to survive the race and make it off Tundar with Iska in Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves (2022) by Meg Long.

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Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves is Long’s debut novel.

Long blends fantasy with survivalist adventure in this action packed novel. Long takes her time building up the world with rich details and a varied cast of characters. Sena’s first person story starts slow, carefully building out Tundar’s harsh realities before drawing readers into the novel’s plot.

Sena’s slow work to process her grief over her mothers’ deaths and reluctantly form new connections with both people and her wolf Iska play out against the Tundar sled race where the stakes for Sena and Iska are literally life or death. Readers should also be wary of casual violence throughout the story and frostbite induced injuries in the final act.

Cold the Night, Fast the Wolves is an engrossing adventure which hints at many more stories to be told in this world.

Possible Pairings: Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, All Systems Red by Martha Wells, Fable by Adrienne Young

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

The Girl the Sea Gave Back: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Girl the Sea Gave Back by Adrienne YoungTova has never been comfortable among the Svell; the clan may have saved her from the sea but that does not mean they want her. She knows that the clan needs her as a Truthtongue, relying on her gift to cast rune stones and interpret the web of fate. She knows that being indispensbale is as close as she’ll ever get to being safe when the tattoos covering her skin forever mark her as other.

It’s been more than ten years since the Aska and the Riki ended their blood feud and joined together as the Nādhir. Halvard has been chosen to lead them in this era of peace. He knows little of war and less of treachery.

The runes have never lied to Tova. When they show her a startling future where there are no Svell, she knows her tenuous safety is over. After years of waiting, it’s time to act.

With the neighboring Svell trying to press their position, Halvard knows defending the Nādhir’s territory will have devastating consequences for both sides. He knows it’s a fight his clan has to win if they want to survive.

No one can change the will of the gods. But even Tova is uncertain what fate wants from her as the Svell and the Nādhir move inexorably closer to a final confrontation. Tova is used to untangling the knots of fate but as she and Halvard circle ever closer to each other, she isn’t sure if this time the web of fate will be a net to trap her or a rope to pull her from the depths in The Girl the Sea Gave Back (2019) by Adrienne Young.

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The Girl the Sea Gave Back is a sequel to Young’s debut novel Sky in the Deep and expands the Nordic/viking inspired dimensions of that world where all major characters are presumed white. The Girl the Sea Gave Back alternates between Tova and Halvard’s narrations alongside flashbacks throughout the novel. This book is set thirteen years after the events of Sky in the Deep and contains minor spoilers for that novel. I’d recommend reading these books in order to fully understand the political landscape inhabited by the characters although this book more than stands on its own merits.

Tova and Halvard are excellent main characters readers will immediately love, particularly shrewd Tova as she scrambles to stay ahead of fate’s twists and turns.

The Girl the Sea Gave Back is a complex story that capitalizes on the world and themes Young first introduced in her debut novel. The intricate dual POV structure and flashbacks add further dimension to this story as two characters with little personal understanding of the brutality of war prepare to fight for their home. Young expertly balances new material with just the right amount of callbacks to Sky in the Deep while offering a world that is both more compelling and more magical.

The Girl the Sea Gave Back is a satisfying adventure perfect for readers who enjoy stories with light fantasy elements, a slow build, and a puzzle-like narrative.

Possible Pairings: Realm Breaker by Victoria Aveyard, Lore by Alexandra Bracken, Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon by Mary Fan, Shadow of the Fox by Julie Kagawa, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Warriors of the Wild by Tricia Levenseller, Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto, The Girl King by Mimi Yu

Cazadora: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Cazadora by Romina GarberManu thought that being a Septima means she finally belonged somewhere. She thought she could stop hiding the star-shaped pupils of her eyes. She thought she could stop hiding as an undocumented immigrant.

Instead, Manu is in more danger than ever. As a female werewolf, a lobizona, Manu’s existence puts the strict gender binaries undperpinning Septimus society into question. With a human mother and a Septima father, Manu shouldn’t even exist.

With so much riding on Manu’s identity, magical law enforcement known as the Cazadores want to control her. While the Coven, an underground resistance group, hope to use Manu as a rallying point.

Manu never wanted to be a symbol for anyone. All she wants is the chance to embrace every part of her identity. Surrounded by friends and hunted by the authorities, Manu will have to determine how much she’s willing to risk for the chance to be exactly herself in Cazadora (2021) by Romina Garber.

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Cazadora is the second book in Garber’s Wolves of No World series. The story picks up shortly after the conclusion of the first book, Lobizona, which readers will want to have fresh in their memories.

All characters are Latinx or Argentine with a range of skintones. This book also delves more into the LGBTQ+ community as readers are introduced to the Coven and other resistance members who push back against the strict laws that force Septimus into gender binaries.

Cazadora blows the Septimus world open as Garber moves beyond her Argentine folklore inspiration to explore a magical world not dissimilar from our own filled with political unrest, inadequate authority figures, and justice that does more in name than in fact. This fast-paced story delves deep into Septimus folklore and legalities as Manu struggles to make a place for herself in a world that continues to find her inconvenient if not downright dangerous.

With sweeping drama, action, and fierce loyalty between Manu and her friends, Cazadora is an apt conclusion to a powerful and timely duology. Readers can only hope Garber will return to Manu’s world and the other Septimus stories waiting to be told.

Possible Pairings: Labryinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova, Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From by Jennifer De Leon, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laeken Zea Kemp, Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza, Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older, The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag, Infinity Son by Adam Silvera, Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything by Rachel Gilliland Vasquez

Lobizona: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Lobizona by Romina GarberManuela “Manu” Azul has always been told that her father is part of an infamous criminal family in Argentina. She has always been told her strange eyes with their star-shaped pupils, could be fixed with a special surgery. She has always been told that hiding is the only way to stay safe.

None of these things are true.

Manu’s small world as an undocumented immigrant is blown apart when her mother is detained by ICE. After years of dodging raids and hiding with her mother in Miami, Manu doesn’t know what would be worse: leaving her mother in ICE detention or being caught herself.

Plagued by debilitating menstrual pains unless she takes medication provided by her mother and terrified that she’ll be separated from her mother forever, Manu knows she has to do something. But she isn’t sure how one girl can stand strong with so many obstacles in her way.

Manu’s quest to find her mother leads to surprising truths about her father, her strange eyes, and Manu’s powerful connection to a world she thought only existed in Argentine folklore in Lobizona (2020) by Romina Garber.

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Lobizona is the first book in Garber’s Wolves of No World series. She has also published the Zodiac series under the name Romina Russell. All characters are Latinx or Argentine with a range of skintones and other identities that are further explored throughout the series.

Garber expertly blends Argentine folklore surrounding witches, werewolves, and the powerful magic of so-called “Septimus” the seventh children of seventh children into a nuanced and enchanting urban fantasy. Complex magic and highly evocative settings draw readers immediately into a story where magical powers are no guarantee of belonging and secrets have power.

As Manu struggles to find a world willing to make space for her, Lobizona offers a scathing commentary on our own world where children are left in cages and the government can callously decide who does and does not belong or qualify as “legal”. Manu thoughtfully interrogates these concepts as she learns more about the world of the Septimos and her own tenuous place in it.

Lobizona is the action-packed start to a sophisticated, high concept series for genre and literary fans alike. Come for the timely look at current events, stay for the inventive folklore inspired fantasy.

Possible Pairings: Labryinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova, Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From by Jennifer De Leon, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laeken Zea Kemp, Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza, Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older, The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag, Infinity Son by Adam Silvera, Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything by Rachel Gilliland Vasquez

Luck of the Titanic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Of the eight Chinese passengers aboard the Titanic, six survived.

Valora Luck almost misses her chance to be one of those passengers when her entry is blocked thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act which restricts the admission of Chinese immigrants into the United States. Valora is used to obstacles, though, and isn’t about to let a silly policy stop her from getting on board and seeing her twin brother Jamie for the first time in years.

Jamie is traveling on the Titanic as a seaman on his way to Cuba with the rest of his crew but Val has bigger plans for both of them. Reunited for the first time since their father’s death, this is the perfect opportunity for the twins to revive their acrobatics act–an act that Val knows will be good enough to attract the attention of the Albert Ankeny Stewart. One look at their performance and Mr. Stewart will have to recruit them for the Ringling Circus. Then Val and Jamie can finally get back to being family again instead of near strangers.

Val’s plan is perfect. Until disaster strikes and, as the Titanic begins its last night as an ocean liner, Val and her brother will have to worry about surviving the present before they can plan for the future in Luck of the Titanic (2021) by Stacey Lee.

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Luck of the Titanic is narrated by Val as she struggles to board the luxury liner and secure passage into America for herself and her brother. The story is inspired by the real Chinese passengers on the TitanicYou can read more about Lee’s real-life inspiration to write this story in an essay she wrote for Oprah Daily.

Lee once again delivers a masterful work of historical fiction. Luck of the Titanic is carefully researched with front matter that includes a cast of characters and diagrams of the famous ship. The balances portraying the very real racism and intolerance Val and her fellow Chinese passengers would have encountered on the ship (or in attempting to travel to the United States) while also highlighting small joys as Val reconnects with her brother, befriends his crewmates, and as all of them discover the magic of this larger-than-life ship before it strikes an iceberg and begins to sink.

Val is an accomplished acrobat which adds a fun dimension to the story. Because of the novel’s setting, this aspect of Val’s life can never be the main point of the story but it still adds so much to her character as readers see her talent and joy in her work–and the contrast in how Jamie feel’s about the same performance skills.

Readers familiar with the history of the Titanic will recognize many key points including the iconic state rooms and grand stairway while the story also shows more of third class (steerage) where Jamie and his crew are located. The novel does include an attempted sexual assault which moves the plot forward (necessitating the separation of Val and some of her friends as the iceberg hits) but also feels excessive in a story that already has plenty of tension and strife for the characters.

Lee also includes nods to common theories about contributing factors to the disaster including the lack of binoculars for crew working in the crow’s nest, the pressure on Captain Smith to drive at speed, and of course the lifeboats (of which there were too few) being launched without reaching full capacity. Other details (the lack of proper warnings from the Marconi operators, the confusion as Titanic tried to signal for help from nearby ships) are left off-page in favor of a focus on the characters. While Lee shows more behind-the-scenes areas of the ship, this novel is largely populated by fictional characters whenever possible leaving notable survivors like Molly Brown and crew member Violet Jessop out of the narrative entirely.

Luck of the Titanic is both gripping and melancholy as the novel builds to its inevitable conclusion. This story of survival and family is completely engrossing while also asking readers to consider whose stories are deemed worth telling in history–and how we can work to widen that scope. Recommended for fans of adventure and historical fiction novels.

Possible Pairings: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, The Watch That Ends the Night by Allan Wolf

Even and Odd: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Even and Odd by Sarah Beth DurstEven and Odd are sisters who share magic on alternating days. On her even days twelve-year-old Emma “Even” Berry tries to pack in as much magic use as she can while she prepares for her next exam from the Academy of Magic. With her level five exam looming, Even needs all the practice time she can get to make sure she stays on schedule with her plans to become a hero. As a hero Even will be able to accept quests and travel throughout the neighboring magical kingdom of Firoth helping people.

Eleven-year-old Olivia “Odd” Berry would be just as happy skipping her magic days altogether. Except for turning her sister into a skunk when she’s annoying, Odd rarely has control of her magic. Odd’s magic might improve with practice, but she’d much rather focus on spending time volunteering at the animal shelter in their sleepy town in Connecticut where the Berrys run a border shop helping visitors from Firoth navigate the mundane world.

When the hidden portal behind Fratelli’s Express Bagels suddenly closes, no one can access their magic. Worse, a lot of magical Firoth residents are stranded far from home and cut off from their families. Even is eagerto help investigate as hero practice and Odd is excited to get to know the unicorn Jeremy who also offers assistance if it means getting home before his parents ground him.

When they find themselves trapped on the wrong side of the border, both sisters will have to rely on all of their skills–magical and otherwise–to figure out who is stealing the border magic and how to fix it in Even and Odd (2021) by Sarah Beth Durst.

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Even and Odd is filled with humor and timely commentary on the harms of closed borders. Narrated in close third person following Even, the story explores magic from both sides as Even embraces all things magical and Odd is readier to find magic in the mundane world (like new kittens!).

With help from Jeremy, a unicorn with a surprising fondness for soda, Even and Odd explore their birthland Firoth for the first time while trying to fix the border. The magic system here is logical and has several parallels to climate change as magical energy is treated as a limited resource–a fact that leads to dangerous consequences for the border and all of Firoth.

Whimsical magical elements and humor help temper these weightier topics as the sisters realize that sometimes being a hero has a lot less to do with proper training and a lot more to do with offering to help. Even and Odd is a fast-paced, magical adventure perfect for readers who like their fantasy with a bit of humor and a lot of sisterhood.

Possible Pairings: The Dragon With a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis, The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer, Shadow Weaver by MarcyKate Connelly, Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger, The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Defy the Fates: A Review

*Defy the Fates is the third book in Claudia Gray’s Constellation trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with the first book Defy the Stars.*

Defy the Fates by Claudia GrayAfter their first unlikely meeting, Abel and Noemi Vidal have traveled the Loop together, saved Genesis forces from annihilation in battle, and stopped an intergalactic plague.

Now, to save Noemi one last time, Abel will have to risk everything including his own cybernetic body as he seeks help from his creator and potential destroyer.

Left for dead, Noemi doesn’t know what it means when she is saved thanks to parts that make her eerily similar to Abel. Not quite mech, but not quite human Noemi is no longer sure if she has a place on her home world anymore than she knows if she has what she needs to save Abel.

As Earth prepares for the final battle with its colony planets, Noemi and Abel once again find themselves at the center of the conflict. With the final battle looming, this unlikely pair will finally see if they’ve done enough to save the colony planets–and each other in Defy the Fates (2019) by Claudia Gray.

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Defy the Fates is the third book in Claudia Gray’s Constellation trilogy. To avoid spoilers start at the beginning with the first book Defy the Stars. The novel alternates between Abel and Noemi’s first person narrations.

Gray builds well on the tension and world building from previous installments in this fast-paced trilogy. The stakes are higher and the dangers are greater as the story builds toward its dramatic finish.

Because of the plot structure, numerous recaps of previous triumphs and battles are repeated throughout the story which diminish the tension. As Noemi and Abel continue to struggle with the question of where they each belong–both together and apart–some of this installment does start to feel like filler.

Defy the Fates is a solid conclusion to an action-packed trilogy perfect for readers who enjoy sci-fi and adventure with just a hint of romance. Fans of the series will appreciate the callbacks to pivotal moments and characters from earlier in the series.

Possible Pairings: Bound by Blood and Sand by Becky Allen, Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza, Beta by Rachel Cohn, The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He, Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, Last of Her Name by Jessica Khoury, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Stitching Snow by R. C. Lewis, Skyhunter by Marie Lu, Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 by Marissa Meyer and Douglas Holgate, Ignite the Stars by Maura Milan, Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Partials by Dan Wells

Realm Breaker: A Review

Realm Breaker by Victoria AveyardCorayne an-Amarat is a pirate’s daughter eager to embark on her own adventures at sea in Allward. But she is also the last of the ancient Cor bloodline and the only one who can use the ancient spindleblade to protect her realm and make sure the Spindles that can open destabilizing passages between realms are closed.

Reluctant to embrace this lineage, Corayne joins weary immortal Dom as he attempts to mount a second quest to succeed where the first failed in closing the Spindles. Aided by a mercenary assassin and Andry, a squire and the only mortal to survive the first quest, the group will face numerous obstacles as they struggle to work together to save the world in Realm Breaker (2021) by Victoria Aveyard.

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Aveyard follows up her blockbuster Red Queen series with this homage to high fantasy that works to make more space for women and offer a more inclusive cast. The realm of Allward features people with a range of skin tones and backgrounds–Andry is described as “honey brown” while Corayne has “golden skin.”

Shifting viewpoints, flashbacks, and changing locations cut through much of the novel’s potential urgency as the narrative pauses continuously to ruminate on the failed quest seen in the prologue and offer character backstories.

Aveyard creates a compelling world with ample space for female characters in a traditionally male genre. Despite its start and stop pacing, Realm Breaker is action packed with plentiful fights, chases, and other derring-do.

Possible Pairings: The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace, Furyborn by Clarie Legrand, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser, Fable by Adrienne Young

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

Kind of a Big Deal: A Review

Kind of a Big Deal by Shannon HaleJosie Pie was a big deal in high school. She was always the lead in school productions, her teachers always said she was destined for greatness. Which is why it made so much sense when Josie dropped out of high school to be a star.

Now, almost a year later, Josie is starting to wonder if she made the right choice. Turns out hitting it big on Broadway isn’t as easy as hitting it big in high school. After a series of failed auditions Josie is starting to wonder if she was ever star material. It certainly doesn’t feel that way while she words as a nanny.

Josie keeps in touch with her best friend, her boyfriend, and her mom. But there’s only so much you can talk about without admitting massive failure (and mounting credit card debt).

When Josie and her charge find a cozy bookstore, Josie receives a pair of special glasses that transport her into her current read. Literally. In the books she can save the day in a post-apocalyptic world, fall in love in a rom-com, and more.

Living out these fantasies is the best thing that’s happened to Josie in a while. But the longer she stays inside the stories, the harder it is to remember why she should come back to her own life in Kind of a Big Deal (2020) by Shannon Hale.

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Hale’s latest YA novel is a genre mashup. Framed by Josie’s contemporary coming of age story, Hale also plays with conventions in dystopian sci-fi, romantic comedies, and historical fiction (genres Hale has by and large tackled previously in her extensive backlist).

Kind of a Big Deal takes on a lot using these genre adventures to help Josie get a handle on her own life. Unfortunately, the stories within this story are often more compelling than Josie’s real life leaving Josie and her friends feeling one dimensional throughout. Stilted dialog and a premise that pushes the limits of plausibility (particularly with eighteen-year-old Josie being solely in charge of a seven-year-old girl while her mother works out of the country) further undermine this otherwise novel premise.

Kind of a Big Deal is a unique take on losing yourself in a good book. The story reads young and might have worked better for a middle grade audience or radically rewritten with older characters for an adult novel. Recommended for readers looking for plot driven genre studies.

Possible Pairings: Admission by Julie Buxbaum, Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*