Elizabeth Crane, . . Little, Brown, $21.95 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-316-09652-2

Crane creates a spirited cast of loopy, neurotic and self-absorbed women, then puts them through their paces in this debut collection of 16 inventive but frequently one-dimensional stories. Dating is a primary concern, as in "The Archetype's Girlfriend," a tongue-in-cheek description of the common attributes and behaviors of gorgeous, over-the-top women who drive men crazy. "You Take Naps" is a similarly short but amusing checklist of romantic red flags drawn up by a 41-year-old woman who begins dating younger men, while "Normal," the tale of a man who begins seeing a woman with a penchant for knives, takes the dating theme into (slightly) scarier terrain. The two most impressive stories in the collection, "Year-at-a-Glance" and "Return from the Depot!" delve into the issue of loss, imaginatively splicing grief and humor. In "Return from the Depot!" the protagonist insists that her recently deceased mother will be coming home soon. Her friends tell her she's in denial, but then her mother really does return—from a bus depot in North Dakota—and becomes a celebrity and the star of a TV sitcom. Crane's machine-gun, first-person narration is entertaining in small doses, but its magazine-style pertness grows tiresome over the course of the collection. Similarly, Crane's bratty, city born-and-bred protagonists—the kind of women whose first thought is "Susan Minot" when "MNT" is traced on a Ouija board—rarely break out of their wisecracking personas. Still, the tart wit and sharp comic timing of these urban fictions will appeal to readers who relish jokes involving both Friends and Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. (Jan.)