Every year for the past four years, I've been coordinating a community review project called the RITA Reader Challenge. We collaboratively gather one review for each book nominated for a RITA, the award of excellence in romance fiction given by the Romance Writers of America each year. It's a good bit of work. There are a lot of books to review, but, much like people who commit to seeing each of the "Best Picture" nominees each year before the Oscars, we want to know as much as possible about the books that are being acknowledged.

The RITA categories change a bit each year. This year is the last year for “Novel with Strong Romantic Elements,” for example, and the first year for "Long Contemporary Series Romance." You can see the complete list of nominees at the RWA website. There are 11 different categories, including contemporary, historical, paranormal, romantic suspense and romance novella.

One constant is that each year I'm introduced to books I'm not familiar with. Surprising, I know! But there are a lot of romances released each year, and there are some sub-genres I am not as into as others. So, each year I see books I've read or seen before, and books I would never have found if not for this project. 

I'm not the only reader who uses the RITA nominations as a discovery tool. Many of the folks who elect to write a review intentionally select books in genres they don't usually read, or by authors they haven't heard of before. One reader, who unfortunately couldn't participate this year because she's traveling the world (lucky duck!), always reads one book in every category to try to introduce herself to as many different types of romance as possible. Each of the readers who elects to review a book can choose which books she'd like to read, and many of the reviews mention the delighted surprise of discovering a new author or a new genre. 

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What are some of the surprises this year? Here's are some of the books I discovered from the RITA nominations that I want to read soon:

Grave Mercy by Robin LeFevers

Reviewed by Michelle

Michelle summarized my eyebrow-raised curiosity best when she said, "[C]ome on, how awesome does 'assassin nuns' sound?"

Assassin nuns DO sound completely badass, thank you! 

I am a bit leery of some YA and New Adult romance with their emphasis on emotional trauma and recovery, as it can be an exhausting experience for me to read books like that, and, while I do enjoy the ones I read, I have to be in the right mood to embrace them. But a YA romance about assassin nuns, arranged marriages, schools of mortal combat and ass kicking? Sign me up! (To read the book, I mean. I'm not really a candidate for assassin nunhood.)

An Heiress at Heart by Jennifer Delamere

Reviewed by Iola from Iola's Christian Reads

Not only did I discover this book through the RITA reviews, but I also discovered Iola's blog—which is very cool, because I do not read a lot of inspirational romance. This book is set in the Victorian era, with a vicar hero who suddenly inherits a title (and all the social expectations that come with it), and a heroine who is pretending to be her best friend, and can't reveal who she really is. I'm so curious about this book.

Time's Echo by Pamela Hartshorne

Reviewed by Harper Grey

This novel is a time-travel romance wherein a character from the Elizabethan era can insert herself into the life of a character in the present day—like a possession, except that the Elizabethan character, Hawise, isn't always malevolent. Harper Grey's review said that the book is powerfully captivating, and since I like novels from writers like Susanna Kearsley, who similarly explore the interrelations between past and present lives, I want to read this one as soon as possible. 

How do you discover books? Did you notice any new stories you'd like to read from among this year's RITA® nominees?

Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. She loves talking with romance readers, and hopes you'll share your new favorite romance reading recommendations. You can find her on Twitter @smartbitches, on Facebook, or on her couch, most likely with her eyeglasses turned towards a book.