Ravenel stretches her sense of southernness so far in this volume of 18 stories that even some of the contributors wonder what they're doing here, as a few comment in afterwords to their pieces. The strongest tales (by Edward Jones, Jill McCorkle, Peter Taylor, Wendell Berry, Pinckney Benedict, and David Huddle) have all appeared in recent collections and been reviewed (in most cases, favorably) by Kirkus. An excerpt from Robert Olen Butler's prize-winning book also shows up, making this volume a sampler of the year's best collections. The remaining 11 stories are a mixed bag, with tales of love and relationships dominating. Tony Earley's ``Charlotte'' links the narrator's failed romance to the disappearance of professional wrestling in his North Carolilna hometown. Equally quirky, Dan Leone's ``Spinach,'' set in the ``Spinach Capital of the World'' (Alma, Arkansas), finds two men abandoning the same woman for lives as desert bums. Dennis Loy Johnson's ``Rescuing Ed,'' set near Little Rock, chronicles another relationship in turmoil--the narrator's partner in the contracting business has a hard time holding on to his artsy wife. The hip, modern South also shows up in Kevin Calder's ``Name Me This River,'' about a young, self-dramatizing girl from Atlanta. Annette Sanford's ``Helens and Roses,'' about a couple in a Texas trailer- park who've been married for 50 years, testifies to the endurance of jealousy. But Paula Gover's ``White Boys and River Girls,'' Georgia-set, is the real find here--a pitch-perfect tale of mismatched lovers. The unequivocal love between parents and children makes for three compelling pieces: Richard Bausch's narrative of an aging father who feels helpless; Elizabeth Hunnewell's sweet memory of a stepfather; and Lee Merrill Byrd's tear-jerking tale about a family altered forever by a fire. Wayne Karlin's haunting ``Prisoners'' provides a much-needed historical sense to this otherwise free-floating collection. Despite its shortcomings, still maybe the best annual story anthology around.