Book Review, Romance Review

Review: Playing With Fire by LJ Shen

Playing With Fire - LJ Shen
Playing With Fire – LJ Shen

A broken boy on the path to destruction.
A scarred girl without direction.
A love story carved in secrets, inked with pain and sealed with a lie.

Grace Shaw and West St. Claire are arctic opposites.
She is the strange girl from the food truck.
He is the mysterious underground fighter who stormed into her sleepy Texan college town on his motorcycle one day, and has been wreaking havoc since.
She is invisible to the world.
He is the town’s beloved bad boy.
She is a reject.
He is trouble.
When West thrusts himself into Grace’s quiet life, she scrambles to figure out if he is her happily-ever-after or tragic ending. But the harder she pushes him away, the more he pulls her out of her shell.
Grace doesn’t know much about anything beyond her town’s limits, but she does know this:
She is falling in love with the hottest guy in Sheridan U.
And when you play with fire—you ought to get burned.

I’m a big LJ Shen fan but I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. It’s not the standard love story, that’s for sure, but I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Our hero comes off as a complete and utter jerk from the moment he’s introduced. That’s more annoying here than in some books because Grace Shaw has already suffered more than most people will in their lifetimes so I was immediately protective of her. West is popular, a cocky player and big name in the underground fight scene. Grace isn’t interested in being the next notch on his bedpost but he’s just different enough from her assumptions to catch her interest.

Girls swoon over West St. Claire so when Grace is completely unimpressed with everything about him, her indifference gets his attention. She’s smart, sarcastic and tough and he’s not at all the pompous cad she expected so they become fast friends. Eventually they both realize the feelings go deeper but they’re both deeply scarred and afraid to get close to anyone. Life is complicated for Grace and she knows West will only complicate things more but she can’t stay away. He’s brooding, secretive and quick to anger so she’s sure he’s going to break her heart and she can’t take any more heartbreak. Grace is scared to open herself up to him but as he slowly opens up to her, he draws her out of the cozy bubble she uses to close herself off from the world. It turns out West’s life is complicated, too. He lives with a burden no one should ever have to carry, and has since he was just seventeen. Despite his assholery, his heartbreaking backstory makes him one of the most sympathetic jerks ever.

This story wasn’t the predictable small-town college romance between the quiet girl and the notorious town bad boy that I was expecting. Shen’s characters are far too realistic for that and her plot too juicy. Things are antagonistic initially so there’s a lot of tension as they go from enemies to friends, then the sexual tension really ramps up. Grace Shaw and West St. Clair are one of my favorite LJ Shen couples. The plot didn’t go where I expected so I liked the surprises. I also appreciate the fact that even HEA doesn’t mean perfect. These characters are broken and flawed but the trauma that created those cracks also gave them incredible strengths which let them find goodness in the world and each other.

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