"Beating the Adoption Game" provides a refreshing antidote to the saccharin guides that invite adoptive parents to surrender to the benevolent embrace of agencies. Despite some exasperating flaws -- made more glaring by its strengths -- this book is well worth the price, if only for its solid tips on finding kids.

Author Cynthia Martin makes her position clear. The odds of finding a baby through the traditional adoption agency route are about the same as discovering one on your doorstep. Adoption agencies counsel clients to be truthful, but -- Martin warns -- rejection is too often the reward for candor. After all, agencies exist to screen people out not screen them in.

Happily, agency adoption is not the only game in town. Though the public has been led to believe otherwise, private adoption -- either directly from a birth parent or via an intermediary -- is perfectly legal in most states. Martin advises her readers to be aggressive, rather than submit to mysterious and often fruitless agency rituals. She even suggest placing "parents available" ads in personals columns and stalking women about to enter abortion clinics. With 90 percent of unwed mothers now keeping their babies, would-be adoptive parents can succeed only by tapping every resource of imagination and will. Even those receptive to older of handicapped youngsters must prepare to fight the system.

In defense of such tactics, psychologist Martin cites evidence showing agencies can predict parenting potential no better than the marketplace can. What's more, agencies still have some say in private placements, since the court always requires an agency check on the child's new home before granting a final adoption decree.

"Beating the Adoption Game" will hit home to many adoption applicants who have mastered its lessons through painful trial and error. It is a comprehensive book, almost to a fault.

However, the book gets started on the wrong foot with four chapters which clinically describe contraception, abortion, infertility and test-tube babies, all before the subject of adoption is ever broached. This format perpetuates the notion of adoption as a last resort, taken only when heroic medical efforts fail, instead of simply another way to form a family.

The time Martin has devoted to such peripheral subjects could have been better spent delving deeper into other topics she only skims, from single-parent adoption to public subsidies to interracial placement. Particularly disappointing is her superficial treatment of intercountry adoption. Martin lists just two avenues, a U.S. agency working abroad or a private foreign contact, overlooking the most common method, adoption directly through an indigenous child welfare agency. Also, while encouraging people to strike out on their own, she fails to stress that adoptive parents' organizations now provide essential information and support functions once performed exclusively by agencies.

Carrying her crusade for private adoption to extremes, Martin will raise some eyebrows by outright endorsement of baby selling, adoption by gays, and "open" adoption which strips away the traditional veil of anonymity between the parties. Jittery adoptive parents won't be won over by an anecdote about a birth mother who announces herself to a boy on his way home from school, while his adoptive parents remain unruffled. After all, "They don't feel they own him; they just have had a fantastic opportunity to borrow and raise him." Even though adoption secrecy has been overdone, how can a child's crucial sense of identity be nurtured by parents who consider him merely "borrowed?"

For all her iconoclasm, Martin avoids painting herself into a corner. She's not for wiping out agencies, only for updating them. "The goal for adoption agencies should not be power but service." Under her vision of service, long-term foster care would be abolished, biological parents afforded proper counseling and no one interested in adopting turned away. Rather, they would be helped to find kids and to rear them. Praiseworthy objectives, all, but verging on utopian without the gritty details of financing and implementation filled in.

These are, however, errors of omission rather than commission. With all its shortcomings, this is still an adoption manual for our time. Professionals will argue Martin has her priorities reversed, focusing on the quest of adoptive parents instead of the plight of homeless youngsters. Yet, families seeking kids and kids seeking families are just two sides of the same coin. Their mutual coming together -- whatever the mechanism -- is what adoption is all about. Keeping aspiring parents from losing heart is Martin's greatest contribution.