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Talking about awards for romance novels is a fraught endeavor. First of all, the broader literary scene tends to denigrate romance novels to begin with, and they almost never get recognition outside of genre-specific awards. So there’s a “lipstick on a pig” mentality from outsiders for award-winning romance novels to overcome. On top of that, awards often get things wrong, especially with romance.
Just look at the Goodreads awards nominees from 2023. Whoever curated that ballot was clearly choosing titles based on popularity rather than quality. Not that popular books can’t have high quality, but popularity is its own kind of reward! Awards are meant to find the best, which can and should include titles that were overlooked by readers who only seek out or happen upon popular books.
This issue of awards ballots that are not truly representative of the genre is not exclusive to Goodreads. You can read more about the problems with the Romance Writers of America’s RITA award on Duke University’s Unsuitable blog. The RWA has, frankly, bungled dealing with racism among its authors and judges so badly that they haven’t awarded any books since 2021. That year’s awards only compounded the problem, as this LitHub article explains.
Despite these issues, plenty of fantastic romances have received awards. Moreover, there are some great organizations issuing romance awards! They take nominations from a wide array of readers and end up with much more interesting — and better — titles. The Ripped Bodice Awards (no longer being given), The Swoon Awards, the #readRchat awards, the Audies, and the Lambda Literary Awards provide many of the must-read books below.
Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas (2010 RITA Award)
Sherry Thomas is the all-star of historical romances that rip your heart out and then sew it back in. Here, Bryony is a female doctor in the Victorian Era, a feat unto itself. She’s working in colonial India, and who shows up but her ex, Leo, who is trying to get her back to England where she is needed. The slow reveal of what went wrong between them the first time as they find their way back to each other is exquisite.
The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare (2018 Audie Award)
Tessa Dare is one of the very best historical romance authors out there, and this novel kicks off her Girl Meets Duke series. Emma, a seamstress, shows up at the Duke of Ashbury’s house demanding payment for a wedding dress she sewed for the Duke’s ex-fiancee. The Duke offers her a marriage of convenience, and because he needs an heir, that marriage will be getting consummated, if you know what I mean. Despite the practicality of the whole thing, feelings get in the way! Yes, they do! Ugh, this book is a delight.
Long Shot by Kennedy Ryan (2019 RITA Award)
The last year of the RITA awards gave us one of the very best winners. Kennedy Ryan gained massive popularity with Before I Let Go, but readers who are newer to her simply must dive into her back titles. This emotionally intense book traces the romance between a woman in an abusive relationship and the basketball star who treasures her. Be careful going into this one because the on-page violence is intense, but the love story is unforgettable.
Trashed by Mia Hopkins (Ripped Bodice Awards 2019)
You want a super hot romance? Here. This second entry in the Eastside Brewey series pairs Eddie, recently released from prison and trying to stay out of trouble, with Carmen, a top chef. The two had some anonymous hot sex one time and then reunite when Eddie starts working for Carmen. This romance realistically grapples with financial precarity, familial obligation, the intersection of racism and sexism, all while being sexy as all giddy-up. Get into this series.
A Prince on Paper by Alyssa Cole (Ripped Bodice Awards 2019)
You should definitely read the entire Reluctant Royals series, starting with A Princess in Theory, but this is my personal favorite entry in the series. It’s a royal romance between good girl Nya and bad boy Prince Johan. They are in the fictional country of Thesolo for a wedding and end up fake dating for, you know, romance reasons. This book has poignant emotional moments while also being fun and even a little bananas, plot-wise.
Along for the Ride by Mimi Grace (ReadRchat awards 2019)
Road trip romances forever! This one stars Jolene, who is a bit of a hot mess but is doing her best. Top tier romance reasons land her in a car with with grump Jason for a sixteen-hour drive. They don’t like each other, but things turn around for them on this fateful trip. Does this book make excellent use of the only one bed trope? You probably know the answer, but you still need to read to know for sure.
The Rakess by Scarlett Peckham (Ripped Bodice Awards 2020)
I simply adore this historical romance with low-key gothic vibes. The female main character is based on early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. She’s prickly and standoffish and falling for Adam, a wholesome Scottish architect, is not part of her plan. Her plan, by the way, is to take down the powerful man who ruined her. What I love about this book is that it underscores the importance of finding community and fostering relationships while being an activist.
Two Rogues Make a Right by Cat Sebastian (2020 Lambda Literary Award)
Like the above Alyssa Cole novel, this is another award-winning third book in a series. And again, I recommend reading the entire Seducing the Sedgwicks series (heck, the whole Cat Sebastian catalog). This book, though, truly took me by surprise. I’m not generally a fan of hurt/comfort or sick-bed type tropes in my romances, but this is a notable exception. Will is tending to his sick best friend, Martin, and they fall in love. This book is a beautiful testament to choosing love, even when long life isn’t guaranteed and even when people have deep flaws.
Silver Silence by Nalini Singh (Australian Romance Readers Award 2022)
If you’ve been curious about where you can dive into Nalini Singh’s long-running Psy-Changeling universe, Silver Silence is an ideal place. This book is the first in a spin-off of sorts, so you can start fresh. This paranormal world features Psy, with telepathic and telekinetic powers, along with changelings, who are shapeshifters. And humans, ho-hum. This novel follows Silver, whose mind is supposed to be free from emotion, as she catches feelings for a bear shifter named Valentin. There’s a high stakes assassination plot, yes, but this entry in the series is also wildly charming and funny.
Kiss Her Once for Me by Alison Cochrun (Lambda Literary Award 2022)
I know it’s not the time for holiday romances, so maybe save this one for Christmas in July. Or read it now; I’m not your mom. I adore this book for being so messy. Ellie had an unforgettable night last Christmas, but now she’s in some financial dire straits and has agreed to a marriage of convenience with Andrew. They visit Andrew’s family for the holiday, and who’s there? Just Andrew’s sister, the very woman Ellie shared her amazing night with the year prior. This book is full of people doing the wrong thing for good reasons, and it’s a blast.
Queerly Beloved by Susie Dumond (Lambda Literary Award 2022)
Full disclosure: Susie Dumond is a fellow Book Rioter! Still, you should absolutely read her debut romance, set in Tulsa in the early 2010s, before the Supreme Court decision secured marriage equality for queer people. Full of found family, discussion of queer identity, and of course, a lovely romance between baker Amy and Charley, who’s new to town, it’s a charming and thoughtful book. It’s great to read books about queer people thriving and finding community in places that aren’t known for being especially welcoming.
Sing Anyway by Anita Kelly (Swoon Awards 2022)
If you haven’t yet read anything by outstanding romance author Anita Kelly, this gem of a novella is a perfect place to start. It’s a low-angst story between nonbinary history professor Sam and Lily, a crush-worthy karaoke star. It’s a one-night stand turned into more romance and a heartwarming tale of regular people lifting each other up. If you also feel like you’re old enough to have sorted your life out by now, and yet you are still feeling at sea, you will absolutely relate to these characters.
If you want to read more of the very best romance, we can help. We have 24 of the all-time greats as well as 2022’s best. If you want to see if popular is, in fact, best, you can read the bestselling romances of all time. And if one book is never enough, check out the best romance series. Romance, it’s simply the best!