Demons in the Spring: By Joe Meno, 272 pgs. By Sean Carswell

I’m a good person to review this latest short story collection by Joe Meno because I’m very familiar with his work. I’ve read all of his novels and both of his short story collections. I even teach his first short story collection, Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir, in one of my freshman-level English courses. So I have an in-depth knowledge of his works and a real understanding of where Demons in the Spring fits into his oeuvre. I’m a bad person to review Meno’s work because Joe is a friend of mine and I recognize a few of the stories in this book from tours he and I have done together. This made me predisposed to like the book before I even started it. With that grain of salt thrown into my review, I feel comfortable saying that this is my favorite work by Joe so far. I like his short story collections better than his novels. I don’t say this to slag his novels. I just mean to say that, while his short stories share the rich language, endearing characters, and depth of emotion that his novels have, his stories also tend to go further into the realm of imagination than his novels do. This free flow of imagination is best exemplified in the story “The Sound before the End of the World,” where a police officer and a member of the KISS Army had to escape the black hole swallowing his town. (And, I know, KISS is lame; they should only be mentioned while ridiculing them. I know. Part of me wishes Meno picked on KISS more. The other part of me is content to know he didn’t take a bunch of easy shots.) The story reflects a delicate balancing act between a clever concept and heartfelt characters. Most writers can’t walk this fine line. Joe’s balance is tight. He also plays with form more in his stories, as evidenced by the choose-your-own-adventure story “What a Schoolgirl You Are” and the extremely clever “Iceland Today,” which initially appears as a Wikipedia-type entry on Iceland, but it goes so much deeper. And sometimes what I like best about Joe’s short stories is the way he draws me into madness, captivates me, and ends the story without really letting me go, as he does with “Ghost Plane.” I wish I had some negative criticism of Joe’s prose so that I could balance this review out a little more, but I really don’t. It’s a tight short story collection. I highly recommend it. Each story is accompanied by the work of a different artist. I’m not as crazy about the artwork, but I’m also not going to pretend to be an art critic. The cover price is a bit high for a paperback ($17.95). Some of the proceeds go to a nonprofit tutoring center in Chicago. –Sean Carswell (Akashic Books, PO Box 1456, NY, NY10009)