FICTION

Almost Famous , by David Small (Norton, $9.95). Ward Sullivan, the protagonist of this novel, has lost his dream without hope of ever recovering it. Called up by the Boston Red Sox after three years in the minors, he suffers a terrible accident the day before he is to join the team -- the result is that he can never play baseball again. Twelve years later, he still lives at home with his mentally disturbed mother and his grandmother. His father is in the hospital dying of cancer. His girlfriend is pregnant. And now, Ward Sullivan must face the fact that for 12 years he has been hiding, but life is conspiring to drive him out into the open again.

The Return of the Soldier , by Rebecca West (Carroll & Graf, $8.95). This is Rebecca West's first novel, published in 1918 when she was 24. Like all her early efforts, it shows no traces of hesitancy or naivete -- from her debut as a professional writer at age 17, West seems to have been blessed with an original and sure voice. It is the story of Chris Baldry, a soldier home on sick leave whose wound has jolted his memory to the point where he fails to recognize his wife and instead remembers only an earlier love. The story turns on the gamble his wife decides to take -- contacting the other woman in hopes she'll agree to stop by and help bring Chris 'round.

Losing Battles , by Eudora Welty (Vintage, $8.95). Though Eudora Welty's longest novel runs to over 400 pages, it is characteristically bounded -- the story unfolds during the two days of Granny Vaughn's 90th-birthday bash in the hamlet of Banner, Miss. The extended clan that gathers provides Welty with an ideal opportunity to display the surest ear for rural dialogue of any American writer. "All poisonous snakes you can tell 'em because they crawls waverly, son," explains a character named Brother Bethune. "If a snake ain't coming with the idea to kill you, he crawls straight." Also back in print from the same publisher at the same price is The Optimist's Daughter, Welty's short novel about a young woman who returns to the South of her birth to go through her deceased father's effects and discovers that "surviving is perhaps the strangest fantasy of all."

NONFICTION

A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt , by Geoffrey C. Ward (HarperPerennial, $14.95). The author's earlier volume, Before the Trumpet, 1882-1905, covered FDR's youth and young manhood until his marriage to the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt. This volume (which won the National Book Critics Circle award for biography) carries the great man's life forward until middle age and ends with his election as governor of New York in 1928. The mass of fresh information is simply astonishing. Spoiled, exuberant, handsome, aristocratic, wealthy, politically ambitious, young Roosevelt seemed destined for a brilliant career until disaster struck. On July 28, 1921, he visited the Boy Scout camps up the Hudson from New York City that served 2,100 city boys. That evening he returned to the city. "With him went a mysterious virus, perhaps incubated somewhere among the Boy Scouts, inhaled or ingested at some point during the hot, hectic day, too small for any microscope to detect, but already moving through his bloodstream, multiplying as it moved." How FDR triumphed over his poliomyelitis makes fascinating reading.

How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War, 1938-1939 , by Donald Cameron Watt. The dance of diplomacy from Munich to Hitler's attack on Poland, elegantly recounted by the Stevenson Professor of International Diplomacy at the University of London. This is the story of how Britain and France, having abandoned a strong ally (Czechoslovakia), went to war over a country they could not possibly defend (Poland). The author's judgments are never hedged: "The only people who could have stopped {Hitler} permanently were those least conditioned to do so, his Generals, and their soldiers, if they had been ready to obey, by a coup d'e'tat . . . History knows this did not happen." The portraits of Europe's leaders, starting with Chamberlain and Hitler, are particularly skillful. And what a cast of supporting characters! Who can forget King Zog of Albania, or the leader of the British military mission to Moscow, Adm. Sir Reginald Plunket-Ernle-Erle-Drax.

Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure , by Victor Nell (Yale, $14.95). It's called "ludic reading," at least in this book -- the rest of us might know it as not being able to put a book down or some such other experience of literary enchantment. The author, a South African psychologist, has subjected the phenomenon to a whole battery of psych-lab procedures, including questionnaires, correlations and statistical analysis, and has collected data from subjects who read books while wired to sensors (how did they concentrate? one wonders). Among the challenges posed was one to which Book World readers might want to address themselves: "If all the fiction I have read for pleasure only for the past 12 months were laid out for judgment by my high school English teacher and the head of the English Department at which I studied as an undergraduate, they would classify X percent as 'trash' that was not worth reading."