After Bridget Jones click-clacked through town, any woman who wrote about being young and alone in an urban center was lumped into the derisively dubbed Chick Lit genre. And yes, some of those girls weren't worth your time or money. I hope the same fate doesn't await Elizabeth Crane. Her debut short-story collection, When the Messenger Is Hot, covers its fair share of romantic woe, but Crane, whose voice is sharp and smart and wholly sympathetic, is no cheap knockoff.
The book is dedicated to the author's father and the memory of her mother, and her mom is all over these stories. ''Return From the Depot!'' is about a daughter who swears her mother didn't really die of cancer; she's just stuck at a bus stop 60 miles southeast of Minot, N.D. In ''Year-at-a-Glance,'' a young woman can't stop marking time after she loses her mother to lung cancer: ''Month two: I resent anyone who still has a mom and speaks about it openly in front of me.''
Lucky for us Crane isn't one of those goofy-feely types. She's funny, even when her subject is pain. In ''An Intervention,'' a woman who misses her mom and can't meet a decent man finds a sense of belonging at Alcoholics Anonymous. But her old friends are worried because she's only been drunk once, in college, off apricot brandy sours. So they confront her with their fears that she's a substance-abuse-group addict. ''I presented all the evidence of my growth as a person and the details of my levels of feeling and they wanted to know why then was I coming home from the grocery store with my pajamas on?'' There's an energy and immediacy to these stories that make them feel as if they could have been delivered in one beautiful, raw rant over a bottle of wine. A night reading them is a night well spent.