Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 14, 2022

Two Sets of Books (2021), by Ruairi Murphy

The shortlists for the Tasmanian Literary Awards are due to be announced tomorrow (November 15th) so although I haven’t yet read all the stories in Ruairi Murphy’s Two Sets of Books, this is a quick review of one of the titles that I hadn’t read when the longlist was announced. (Short stories such as these are for dipping into, not read all in one go.)

As you’ll know if you saw the author photo my feature of the author in Meet an Aussie Author, Ruairi Murphy looks like the kind of genial librarian we have all encountered.  But beneath that mild-mannered persona lurks a macabre imagination.

An imagination that was noted in a string of awards:

  • the idea was runner-up in the 2014 Festival of Golden Words Pitch competition in Beaconsfield, Tasmania;

And the MS was

  • shortlisted in the 2017 Tasmanian Premier’s literary awards;
  • a finalist in the 2018 Carmel Bird digital literary award, and
  • a semi-finalist in the 2020 Hawk Mountain short story collection award.

The first story, ‘The Swim Back’ has an arresting beginning:

I don’t know why it’s so hard for everyone to understand why I burned down the library—they’re acting like they’ve never been in love. (p.15)

The lovelorn central character conforms deceptively to the stereotype of a librarian: he lives at home with mum and dad, and his claim to fame is that he was the best shelver in the library.  

I was a book shelver.  When someone removes a book from the shelf, we shelvers call the space that remains a window.  Windows are gold for shelvers.  Windows mean you can re-shelve a book (a) without having to shift aside other books, and (b) with only a passing glance at the spine label.  It turns a seven-to-nine second task into a two-to-three-second one.  That might not sound like much, but it adds up when you’re shelving hundreds of books.

(This guy has timed how many seconds it takes to shelve a book.)

I should also mention, just quietly, that I was the best shelver in the library. I could send more books home in an hour than anyone else.  287, if anyone’s counting, which of course I was. Officially, all shelvers were paid the same hourly rate.  Unofficially, you got a bonus for consistently hitting 250 in an hour.  That bonus wasn’t a lot—about the same as a tin of Coles homebrand carrots—but back then I was chasing every cent. (p.16)

All this industry and competitive spirit is channelled into his ambition to own a 1982 BMW, which he thinks will lure girls into sharing their names and phone numbers.  Oh dear…

Along comes Annabel, the love of his life.  They bond over a game called Pyramid.

Every seasoned shelver played Pyramid. The rules were simple: the library had two wooden pyramids, each with three tiered shelves, where about a dozen books could be displayed.  Starting on the hour, you and your co-pilot each took a pyramid, stripped it, then loaded it up with whatever books you thought people would borrow.  You replaced any that were taken, and at the end of the hour you subtracted any that remained from your score.

Annabel went wild for it.  What’s more, she loved to win, which was fine by me because I know how to lose—when you shelve for three hours an afternoon, several times a week, you get to know the class presidents from the freaks and geeks.  I went down like the mafia was paying me.  I couldn’t help it—every seat in my stupid heard sold out at the thought of seeing Annabel’s winning smile. (p.17)

Two Sets of Books wrests conflicting emotions about its hapless characters, but as Ruairi explained (See Meet an Aussie Author) the book is about the two versions of ourselves – the one we curate and present to the world, and the true self that we hide from others. In ‘Underworld’, horrified fascination gives way to compassion.  In ‘Butterfly’ a childless older woman seeks redemption for a thuggish young offender (also a shelver), only to learn a devastating truth. ‘Spineless’ is heartbreaking in its depiction of vulnerability and exploitation.

BTW This book is self-published (in a good cause, raising funds for adult literacy in Tassie) but (unlike too many self-published efforts that I’ve come across) the production is flawless. A professional book design and layout by Lydia Warner and Tracey Diggins; not a typo in sight; and the editing by Maura Bedloe is crisp and tight.

Author: Ruariri Murphy
Title: Two Sets of Books
Publisher: Ruairi Murphy Publishing, 2021
ISBN: 9780645198805, pbk., 208 pages
Source: personal library, purchased direct from Ruairi Murphy Publishing, $28.35

Available at the following Tasmanian bookshops:

Ruairi tells me that it’s also available as an eBook with the usual behemoths, but I don’t advertise them on this blog.


  1. Haha, this does sound good! I wish I got a bonus for shelving more. The advantage of being a university shelter was often finding books for my essays. The other thing was finding books stashed … like books on James Joyce “hidden” in geology where no one but the hider would find them. I would take dastardly pleasure in returning them to their rightful place. But of course he’s right about the window, though I don’t recollect calling it that. The constant shuffling of books! And the decision about how much time you should spend on fixing a mess versus getting through your trolley. Sometimes near enough had to be good enough!


    • Yes, that had to be my approach in the school library. I tried having monitors do it, with (a-hem) ‘mixed’ results, and then just did my best, with a grand tidy-up at the end of every term.


      • I was thinking as I wrote that, that I’m sure you would have confronted the same issue – as public libraries do all the time too. You just have to hope the library users will look around (and will notice that the order isn’t quite perfect!)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Two Sets of Books | Ruairi Murphy (reviewed by Lisa @ANZLitLovers) […]


  3. […] Two Sets of Books | Ruairi Murphy (reviewed by Lisa @ANZLitLovers) […]


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