NONFICTION

Diners: People and Places , by Gerd Kittel (Thames and Hudson, $15.95). The diner, Richard F. Snow tells us in his introduction to this collection of almost 70 photographs, evolved from a horse-drawn cart called a night owl or a lunch wagon. In 1884, a Massachusetts bartender noticed people eating sandwiches from a lunch wagon in the rain -- three years later he opened one equipped with stools, a counter and a kitchen. By the early part of the century, local ordinances restricted the lunch wagons and so enterprising businessmen rented land and took off their wagon wheels. If this sounds awfully historical, no matter -- you can be ignorant of the century-old history of the modern diner and still enjoy these photographs. Each of the diners pictured is different -- some are sleek and streamlined, elegant with neon; others boxy and slabsided. All radiate the easy familiarity of these cozy eating places.

The Human Face of Poverty: A Chronicle of Urban America , by Vincent Fanelli (The Bootstrap Press, $12.50). For almost 20 years Vincent Fanelli has been a volunteer with Fourth World, an organization of European origin that serves the poor. In this case, the poor in question live in the U.S., specifically in Manhattan, within shouting distance of Wall Street. He tells the grim but frequently moving stories of the families he met, especially the children -- like the ones in a tiny, stifling apartment who "seemed to be going crazy . . . Playing with water in the bathtub appeared to be their only relief." One of the group's most successful programs is taking families to the country, where many of the children can run free and safe for the first time in their lives.

Group Portrait: Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, H.G. Wells , by Nicholas Delbanco (Carroll & Graf, $9.95). For a few fleeting months at the turn of the century, the five writers named in the subtitle were neighbors and colleagues in the south of England -- an array that can easily hold its own with the more famous (and more durable) Bloosmbury Group of a generation later. Much of James's work was behind him by then and nearly all of Crane's (he died in June 1900, of consumption), but the other three stood on the threshold of great careers. The proximity allowed Conrad and Ford to collaborate on a couple of novels and all of them but Ford to join forces with several other writers to knock out a play staged as a Christmastime lark in 1899.

Back Where I Came From , by A.J. Liebling (North Point, $10.95). If there were a poll to choose the best New Yorker writer of all time, odds are the winner would be A.J. Liebling (with close competition from E.B. White and Joseph Mitchell). Readers can sample Liebling's pungent, street-level reporting in this early collection devoted to the glories of New York ethnic life; included are pieces on delicatessens, bookies, cigar stores, home-made wine, people in trouble, jockeys, and show biz. For a taste of the somewhat more classical Liebling, try his full-length profile The Honest Rainmaker or his last book, Between Meals, a paean to Paris and gourmandise. Both are available from North Point. SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY

The 1990 Annual World's Best SF , edited by Donald A. Wollheim with Arthur W. Saha (DAW, $4.50). The settings of the 12 stories in this book include Washington, D.C. in the year 2009, Guatemala in the not-so-distant future and the planet Venus as it undergoes reshaping by aliens. In James Morrow's "Abe Lincoln in McDonald's," Lincoln visits the future as he tries to decide whether to sign a peace treaty with the South that will allow slavery to continue. In Gregory Benford's "Alphas," aliens ignore humanity while they gut the planet Venus. And in Lucius Shephard's "Surrender," two journalists discover a strange biological experiment in a Guatemalan village.

Terraplane , by Jack Womack (Tor, $3.95). From a future dominated by multinational corporations and a grudging cooperation between the Soviet and American goverments, four people go back to 1939 and a slightly different past from the one we know. It is a past they would prefer to avoid -- slavery has been outlawed for less than 50 years. Unemployment is 50 percent. Among the time travelers is the narrator of this novel, Robert Luther Biggersaff, black and a former general, who must find a way back to their own time. The real strength of this novel is the language: "Untabling his hands, he lapped them stomachways. His face lacked all but laughter; his smile's rictus certified caution . . . Transactions with Russia problematicked; feasting with those who might moneyfy you or kill you with equal ease and reason poured no syrup over the already indigestible."

Snow White and Rose Red , by Patricia C. Wrede (Tor, $3.95). This novel is the fourth in a series of retellings of traditional fairy tales. In each, the core of the story is familiar, but the setting and characters are somewhat changed. Here, Patricia C. Wrede relates the tale of Snow White and Rose Red, placing it in an Elizabethan England peopled by actual historical figures as well as characters who exist only in the world of the imagination. Snow White and Rose Red become Blanche and Rosamund, daughters of a poor widow. The two find themselves drawn to a pair of wizards whose enchantment has trapped the son of the Queen of Faerie.

Good News From Outer Space , by John Kessel (Tor, $4.95). The "good news" in this novel is that there is an alien among us, an alien preparing for a full-scale invasion of his kind. At least, that's what tabloid reporter George Eberhart is reporting. Eberhart, the only person to believe in the alien, roams America as the year 2000 approaches, while the alien commits acts of senseless violence. A tale of society breaking down and infectious madness.

Horror: 100 Best Books , edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman (Carroll & Graf, $8.95). This collection of brief essays, by many of the better known working horror writers and critics, emphasizes the variousness of this much-maligned genre. Included are Diana Wynne Jones on John Webster's play The White Devil; John Sladek on The Tales of Hoffmann; Thomas M. Disch on Eugene Sue's The Wandering Jew; Harlan Ellison on Clark Ashton Smith's short stories; Lisa Tuttle on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House; Dan Simmons' on John Gardner's Grendel; and John Clute on Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates. Ideal bedside reading, as well as a good guide.