Astringently playful stories, written over 12 years, by the Whitbread Award—winning British novelist (Gut Symmetries, 1997, etc.). Though this first collection is brief, its author’s talent isn’t. Winterson’s appetite for social criticism mingles confidently with her lyrical instinct to give us savagely rhythmic portraits of people lost in lives they’d much rather not have to inhabit. “This is the story of Tom,” begins the tale “Newton,” following Tom through a tight-lipped rant about the pitfalls of dwelling in a suburb whose diabolically conformist code of etiquette impels its non-hero to conceal “my Camus in the fridge.” (Of a neighbor who discovers it there: — ‘Who is Albert K Mew?’ She pronounced it like an enraged cat.—) While Winterson attacks righteous insiders, she also batters—persuasively—anomalous Tom and his ilk for the fecklessness of his chosen alienation. In other stories, the balance shifts toward seductive evocation and away from the author’s tendency to travesty almost any convention. With “Turn of the World,” for instance, Winterson revises the fairy-tale genre by invoking the evolution of four islands. Her closing words are fleetly sensuous, if punctuated by wry observation: “Naturally enough this island is stocked with lions . . . The lions are ruthless as money. The gold is snap-jawed.” Although usually acerbically intelligent, her fiction is also capable of giving itself up entirely to sensory lavishness, as in “The Poetics of Sex,” a revel whose sections are framed by mischievous subtitles (“Were You Born a Lesbian?”). Winterson’s yen for invention can as readily regale us with the details of an Edenic puppyhood (“The 24-Hour Dog”) as skewer Yuletide urges (“O’Brien’s First Christmas”). Best of all, she seems willing to risk being misunderstood for the sake of taking choice imaginative lunges. Neither “realistic” nor “surrealistic,” but work that oddly alchemizes the virtues of both.