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James West, author
In "Phase", Alison Reilly works in an office like any other by day. Office politics and ill-advised romances rule the halls, though she has no patience for either. By night, Alison bangs away, alone, on her beautiful blue drum set. When the two worlds collide, Alison will finally start making music and enter a new phase of her life. But the road won't be a smooth one. One of Alison's bandmates is also one of her coworkers, and the strain of such a complicated relationship just might be too much for one of them.
This character-driven contemporary fiction debut thrives on drama but struggles to set the scene. Alison Riley, 25, is a D.C. law firm’s administrative assistant by day and a passionate drummer by night, keeping her two lives firmly separate. In her office job, she studies the interactions among her coworkers, most notably the perilous romance between George, the hapless office assistant, and Joan, the young, popular new secretary. After Alison takes George out on a friendly dinner to help him sort out his romantic troubles, she shows him her drum kit and gradually lets him into her world. George, a budding musician and lyricist himself, is taken with the drum set and Alison’s talent, and they form a band, taking on new, idealized identities as they begin to mix business with pleasure.

Alison narrates in a loquacious inner monologue that sometimes veers off the track. She describes George as singing “like a heartbroken Negro,” and one of his original melodies as “Arabian-esque” like a “snake-charmer.” These unfortunate passages sour the rest of the narrative. If the era is sometime in the 1980s, as the setting details indicate—characters mention John Bonham’s death, work on a computer referred to as a CRT, and see Bambi in the theater—then why is a hip young rocker using terminology that fell out of common parlance decades before (not to mention calling her fridge an “icebox”)? Such befuddling details can jar the reader out of the story.

West has created two multifaceted leads. Alison’s monologues are darkly comedic as she analyzes the various characters in her office, sometimes prying for more details even as she wonders why she cares about gossip. George plays off her cynicism and sharp observations with his idealism and passion for music. Their strong personalities and enjoyable interplay will satisfy fans of stories in which ordinary people make a grab for a brief moment of glittering joy.

Takeaway: Fans of character-driven drama will be drawn to this story of ordinary people who harbor rock-and-roll dreams.

Great for fans of Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman's Sounds like Titanic, Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: -
Editing: C
Marketing copy: B