Fiction

The Volunteers, by Raymond Williams (Hogarth, $6.95). Raymond Williams has written a variety of critical reflections, including the influential Culture and Society (1958) and The Country and the City (1973). But he has also written several very readable novels, most recently The Volunteers, a tight, fast- moving political thriller for the intellectually inclined. Beginning with the murder of a striking Welsh coalminer, it climaxes with the discovery of an immensely powerful secret insurrectionary organization -- the Volunteers. Like all really good thrillers, however,it also deals in its lean, unsentimental way with man's inward life and the difficulties of moral choice.

The Whisper of the River, by Ferrol Sams (Penguin, $6.95). Picking up where Run With the Horsemen left off, Ferrol Sams continues the story of young Porter Osborn Jr., who has spent his childhood in the red clay farming region of Georgia during the hard-scrabble '30s and now goes off the college, a Baptist institution called Willingham University. There, in spite of various Bible Belt strictures, Porter and his friends get up to much mischief. It's a rollicking tale, a regional story of growing up.

NONFICTION

New York Life at the Turn of the Century in Photographs, by Joseph Byron, from the Byron Collection of the Museum of the City of New York, text by Albert K. Baragwanath (Dover, $9.95). Joseph Byron was a professional photographer, and his skill shows in these scenes of New York life 80 and 90 years ago. From a photograph of a local DAR chapter to the operating room at Roosevelt Hospital, to the Hester Street Market, Byron captures the bustle, business, and humanity of Gotham. The pictures are sharp, their composition is skillful, yet never affected. Together they provide a strong portrait of teeming urban life.

Freya Stark, by Caroline Moorehead (Penguin, $4.95). Dame Freya Stark, now well into her nineties, has been one of the world's great travelers, particularly in Arab-speaking countries. Two of her works, The Southern Gates of Arabia and The Valley of the Assassins, are among the century's most insightful travel books, especially valuable because the regions they cover were so little-known. A relentless wanderer, at the age of 75 Stark listed these moves in her 10-year game plan: "travel in greater comfort: no more of those happy trips third class in steamers; . . . eventually . . . pay for someone to travel with me (poor thing)." This short biography of Stark is one of four initial volumes in Penguin's new series, Lives of Modern Women. The other three subjects, all of them deceased, are Rebecca West, the formidable and protean writer (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, The Birds Fall Down); Jean Rhys, the chronically unhappy novelist (Wide Sargasso Sea and Good Morning, Midnight>; and, the lone American and non-literary figure, Bessie Smith, blues singer nonpareil.

Teacher and Spinster, by Sylvia Ashton-Warner (Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, $7.95 each). Sylvia Ashton-Warner (1908-1984) was a New Zealander who for many years taught Maori children in remote country schools. Realizing that these children were not learning to read with conventional methods of instruction, she developed her own innovative ideas which even now, 23 years after the publication of Teacher, would be revolutionary in most schools. Ashton-Warner conceived of school not as a place for "the plastering on of foreign stuff" but "a cr living where people can still be changed." Teacher is the diary of her classroom years. Spinster, her first successful novel, is also about a teacher of Maori country children. Inspiring as they are, however, these books offer not so much any lasting pedagogical theory but merely a glimpse of a unique personality.

Alexis de Tocqueville: Selected Letters on Politics and Society, edited by Roger Boesche (University of California, $9.95). "I have heard it said in Europe that there was an aristocratic tendency in America. Those who say that are mistaken. . . . Democracy is, on the contrary, either in full march in certain states or in its fullest imaginable extension in others. It is in the mores, in the laws, in the opinion of the majority. Those who are opposed to it hide themselves and are reduced to taking its very colors in order to advance." Thus the 26-year-old tourist, Alexis de Tocquevile, writing from Yonkers, New York, in 1831 to a friend back in France in 1831. The merit of this exceptionally interesting selection of letters is its full portrait of their author, ranging from his Anglophile youth and famous trip to America to his later career as liberal politician and forced retirement from politics under Louis Napoleon's Second Empire.

FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION

A Malady of Magics, by Craig Shaw Gardner (Ace, $2.95). Gardner's first novel -- several chapters of which appeared as short stories -- is the latest in a delightful genre one might call whimsical fantasy. In such stories, magic spells and incantations never quite work, fearsome sorcerers turn out to be absent- minded, and comedy alternates with horror. The spirit of Lord Dunsany and John Collier animates this light-hearted fiction, and its classics include Pratt and de Camp's Incompleat Enchanter series, John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost, and the Cugel stories of Jack Vance. A Malady of Magics stars a sorcerer named Ebenezum who is allergic to magic and an apprentice named Wuntvor who can't remember spells. Together this pair undergo zany Ghostbuster-like misadventures, on their way to Vushta, the City of Forbidden Delights.

Tain, by Gregory Frost (Ace, $3.50). Modern fantasy writers build on the folk epics and fairy tales of ancient times. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings reflects the Oxford professor's mastery of Anglo-Saxon lore and legend, Evangeline Walton's The Song of Rhiannon retells portions of the Mabinogion, and T.H. White's The Once and Future King reimagines the adventures of Arthur and his knights. In Tain Greg Frost creates a novel out of the great Irish epic Tain Bo Cualinge, the story of the famous Celtic champion C,u Chulainn. Here, once again, we hear of Deirdre of the Sorrows, encounter Ireland's fairy-folk the Sidhe, and ride into battle with fierce half-gods and doomed warriors. Not only fantasy fans but also readers of historical fiction will want to look out for this Celtic saga.