This annual British round-up of short fiction runs, on the whole, to the staid, the well-crafted, the pointedly ironic. This year, though, there's a difference, an engaging one. Yes, there are hearth-sitters here, stories that do just conventionally about what you expected them to: tales by Francis King, Douglas Dunn, Edna O'Brien, Nadine Gordimer, and William Trevor. But almost as many selections are in one way or other eccentric, surprising. In Angela Huth's ""Ladies' Race,"" two friends--very ""together"" contemporary young women--race over actual hill and dale in competition for the prize of the callow young man they both love. Tobias Wolff's ""In the Garden of the North American Martyrs"" features an aging spinster-professor in Oregon, turning seedy and into an object for casual cruelty, making a last magnificent gesture of rage--a sharp and moving story. Julia O'Faolain's ""Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad"" is a big yarnball of nervous, punning, centrifugal sentences about age, sanity, charity, powerlessness. Christopher Burney's odd ""Descent from Ararat"" hangs on a neo-conservative philosophical parable. And though all of these stories have an eclecticism about them that absorbs attention quickly, none is quite so strange, or successful, as Beryl Bainbridge's short, unexplainably eerie ""Beggars Would Ride""--which starts off as a flat, bright sketch of two men, tennis partners of no great skill who play shyly together every week. . . and ends studded with enough brooding off-lit symbols to rival an engraving by Durer; it's a truly spooky, unaccountable piece of work that sticks and sticks in the head. Crowned by Bainbridge's stunner, then--an unpredictable, varied, distinguished collection, the best Winter's Tales in quite some time.