South Pole Station

Author: Ashley Shelby
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 2017
Pages: 368
ISBN: 9781250112828
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Climate Fiction

Synopsis: Do you have digestion problems due to stress? Do you have problems with authority? How many alcoholic drinks do you consume a week? Would you rather be a florist or a truck driver?

These are some of the questions that determine if you have what it takes to survive at South Pole Station, a place with an average temperature of -54°F and no sunlight for six months a year. Cooper Gosling has just answered five hundred of them. Her results indicate she is sufficiently resilient for Polar life.

Cooper’s not sure if this is an achievement, but she knows she has nothing to lose. Unmoored by a recent family tragedy, she’s adrift at thirty and—despite her early promise as a painter—on the verge of sinking her career. So she accepts her place in the National Science Foundation’s Artists & Writers Program and flees to Antarctica—where she encounters a group of misfits motivated by desires as ambiguous as her own. There’s Pearl, the Machiavellian cook with the Pollyanna attitude; Sal, an enigmatic astrophysicist whose experiment might change the world; and Tucker, the only uncloseted man on the continent, who, as station manager, casts a weary eye on all.

The only thing the Polies have in common is the conviction that they don’t belong anywhere else. Then a fringe scientist arrives, claiming climate change is a hoax. His presence will rattle this already imbalanced community, bringing Cooper and the Polies to the center of a global controversy and threatening the ancient ice chip they call home.

A winning comedy of errors set in the world’s harshest place, Ashley Shelby’s South Pole Station is a wry and witty debut novel about the courage it takes to band together, even as everything around you falls apart.

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Cyndi's Review

I effing love this book. Love! L. O. V. E. The kind of love that makes you want to draw the o as a little heart. Maybe it's because I've been subjected to a long series of books that didn't jive with me. More likely, it's because South Pole Station roused in me a kaleidoscope of emotions. Ashley Shelby's writing made me sad and angry. It made me laugh and cry. It gave me chills and made my chest tight and my heart race. After a long stint of reading books that I had to muster my resolved to pick up, I couldn't put South Pole Station down.

Cooper Gosling is a thirty-year-old ex-child art prodigy dealing with the loss of her twin brother, David. Having been raised by a hard-ass outdoorsy dad with dreams of exploration, long after exploration was dead, and a new age mom, Cooper finds herself living off the fuel of childhood bedtime stories of Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his doomed expedition to the South Pole. After David's death, Cooper feels the only way to truly connect with her brother is to travel to the South Pole to see firsthand the very place Davie dreamed of going.

Cooper bids for a grant through the Nation Science Foundation (NSF) to travel to the Pole as an artist fellow. A gig she almost doesn't land due to the recent death in the family. But Tucker Bollinger, the Pole's personnel director, takes an instant liking to Cooper and signs her on.

Soon after arriving, Cooper finds herself mired in a deep artistic rut. Her sketched series on mittens is hardly the artistic vision NSF had in mind. As she fumbles through life at the Pole, Cooper meets a troupe of outcasts she can finally relate to. As an added treat, Shelby gives the reader the opportunity to get inside the heads of these unique characters by dedicating chapters to their back stories. The reader gets to see the Pole from their point of view and learn what brought them to this ice desert in the first place.

There's Sal the handsome physicist who broke from his father's path to follow his own. Pearl, the ambitious cook with designs on overthrowing Bonnie, a "lifer" at the Pole. Birdie, the historical novelist working on his book about Lieutenant Henry Robertson "Birdie" Bower. Tucker, the only black member of the Pole team who suffers from stress induced Bell's palsy. Doc Carla, the no nonsense physician who runs the Hard Truth clinic and once employed Tucker to drive her van as she tested sex workers for HIV at the beginning of the epidemic in the 80s. Bozer, the Confederate flag bandana wearing, an ex-military contractor who was once paid to clean up disasters, and now heads the operation to expand the station. Denise, the sociologist who studies the interactions between the Polies (South Pole residents), a.k.a., Nailheads (construction staff), Beakers (scientist), Admins (management), and the Fringies (first timers to the Pole).

South Pole Station offers an honest glimpse into what it means to be human, what grief does to a person, and how the bonds of friendship can be the strongest links in the chain of life. At the beginning of Cooper's journey, she simply wanted to lay her brother to rest, but she ended up finding the family she didn't know she needed.

If you're one who likes witty dialogue, strong, quirky characters, stories of self-discovery, and some funny, yet heartfelt writing, you need to check out South Pole Station.

Renee's Review

In South Pole Station, artistic painter Cooper Gosling, still internally reeling from a tragic death in the family, signs up to head to South Pole Station on an arts program. Surrounded by scientists, laborers, and miles of frigid landscape, she tries to bolster her creativity whilst encountering the strange personalities of those who choose to return to the Pole over and over again. Having grown up on tales of heroic missions to the South Pole, she has a romanticized ideal of the rugged pioneer type who will succeed at Pole. However, the Pole is not quite what she expected. The dramatis personae she meets have strengths that range from gourmet chef to heroic solider, but all live in a strange bubble with customs that hearken back to high school age (the divvying up or "claiming" of individuals as ice "spouses," conflicts between cliques, etc.). The delicate balance of this mini-society is jeopardized by the presence of a climate change denier, backed by conservatives in the United States government, and mishaps ensue.

Overall, I enjoyed Shelby's novel. It was certainly a departure from the run-of-the-mill fare that is often churned out by authors. Additionally, Shelby conducted obvious research into the inner workings of life at the South Pole, right down to the best techniques to use when taking a whizz at the southernmost tip of Earth. Polar-specific equipment is explained in thorough (and yet not tedious) detail. Procedures for surviving at Pole - from training to being sent home - are expertly incorporated into the greater narrative. Shelby has even blended in varying characters with psychological profiles in keeping with the types of people who might be drawn (in some cases repeatedly) by the fascination of such isolation. Each character is unique, but somehow similarly damaged despite their varied backgrounds (the kitchen stalemate between Pearl and Bonnie was a particularly interesting side note; I could certainly read a spin-off novel involving either of them). In short, the day-to-day goings on of individuals at South Pole is explored with an uncanny attention to detail. As a reader, you feel as though you are there, which is very difficult to do when most of us have not even the slightest frame of reference for what it might be like to be encompassed day in and day out by ice.

As with most of the novels I enjoy, South Pole Station is very much a character-driven book. Cooper is a believable and identifiable main character. Even when I did not particularly care for her approach to a situation, I could certainly see why she acted as she did (which is so preferable to the books in which I find myself scratching my head wondering, "Okay, but...why did xyz character do this?"). One gets the feeling reading South Pole Station that Shelby has mentally gone over the logical and illogical responses a character with Cooper's background would have to different stimuli, and actually picked the reactions that made sense. The side characters (several of whom have chapters penned from their own perspective) are similarly well thought out, start to finish; each having their own obstacle to surmount, and each responding to situations in ways that are keeping with their characters. It made for solid character-building. The one character whose inner monologue was jarring (for me) was Bozer. The chapter from the perspective of Bozer, a former military bad ass with a penchant for the Confederate flag, is, out of the entire book, the only chapter written in present tense. The rest of the novel - regardless of whether Cooper or another character was the primary point of view - was in some form of past tense (either first or third person). Even if the content of his thoughts was in keeping with his character, the style used was an odd choice. I was never quite sure why this abrupt and singular transition in tense was included in the book. To induce a dreamlike state? To emphasize the mental differences between Bozer and the rest of the cast of characters? Whatever the reason, it made for a curious shift to and from his chapter, and I felt as though it was slightly misplaced in the book.

The only other complaint I had about the novel was the love story. If you read our blog regularly, you realize this is common for me. At this point in life as a reader, I think it is safe to say that writing a convincing and not vomit-inducing romance might be the single hardest thing to accomplish in literature, because it is very difficult to find an author who pulls it off well (most of what I have read seems to devolve into the formulaic, the bizarre, or the just plain annoying). In this case, sadly, the love story was slightly annoying, which was also slightly tragic as the book did not need a love story to be successful. I found the relationship in question to be oddly abrupt and strained - as though a publisher or agent insisted romance must be included in the final draft. And even though the man in question avoids the pitfalls of many romantic male leads (oozing with generic sex appeal, not a lot going on upstairs), the attraction Cooper felt made no sense to me. Just because a man is an intelligent nerd and good-looking does not mean that he cannot also be an off-putting, narcissistic ass.

While those two points make South Pole Station hover around a four instead of five star rating for me, I definitely recommend it on the whole for readers who enjoy character-driven novels with quirky plotlines. This is an on-the-whole engaging, outside-the-box novel with some brilliant research into the history of South Pole explorers mingled with solid research into psychology and the psychological effects of loss, isolation, and lack of variations in landscape. I would not count out reading this based on a slightly misplaced chapter here or an irritating liaison there...it is well worth the read. And, as this is Shelby's first published fiction book, I have high hopes for subsequent efforts from this author


Again, another concise and brilliant review. Your analysis was such fun to read. Since we both agree this is a good book, let's focus on what you had an issue with. First, yes, I also agree that Bozer's chapter is an abrupt change to the overall narrative flow. I too wondered why Shelby chose to write his in the present tense. Upon reflection, I feel it has to do with his mental state. It would be hard to see all he's seen without carrying it around constantly. Like with any trauma, it's always hiding in the shadows, revealing itself at odd and venerable moments. Perhaps his chapter was in present tense because he toes the precipice between now and then. Bozer has one foot in the past and one in the present.

As for the romance, I found Sal to be both attractive and repulsive. His ego made it hard for me to like him, but as we get to know him, we learn why he is the way he is. Not that he gets a pass for being stuck up, but we get a reason for it at least. He's not a certifiable narcissist, but a lonely individual who gave up something important to follow his passion.

The relationship between Copper and Sal was one I can relate to. Cooper isn't standing on stable footing when she arrives at the Pole. She's off-kilter and searching. Sal swoops in and starts flirting, and like any person with a fractured sense of self, she falls for it.

It's possible that the romance was added at the request of the publisher/editor. It wouldn't be the first time a storyline has been fundamentally altered by outside forces. It could also be that Shelby wanted to express the healing both parties go through as a result of their friendship. Either way, I like that the romance doesn't take over the story.

Good point about the tense invoking a sense of a heavy mental state. I can give the chapter a pass, if that was what she was going for.

However, I am still not sold on the relationship with Sal. While I certainly agree that the romance does not take over Shelby's book (thankfully), I maintain that it did not need to be there at all, what with everything else that was going on in the novel. Cooper is everything you said when she arrives - "off-kilter and searching" - and it makes sense that she would be initially swept off her feet by the first flirtatious guy to come along. However, the relationship-building from that point on was off, for me. I did not really get the sense that Cooper thought of Sal as anything more than a gorgeous, intelligent guy. She was busy doing so many other things, meeting so many new people, that once Sal proved himself to be kind of a dick I did not get her continued fascination. From Sal's perspective as well, I had a hard time deciding what he was interested in (being stuck on the ice for so long, it is fair to say there is one thing most would be interested in, but beyond that? His interest level made no sense). Also, the two simply do not share the stage often enough for the romance to be believable. I love that so much was going on in the novel, but the other action created a dearth of chances to bolster the wooing scenes, and the book started to remind me more of the "insta-love" that is more forgivable in a young adult novel than an adult one. Maybe romance novelists have it right; perhaps - by and large - you need a full book to really give an authentic feel to a romantic relationship.

Every so often, I make a good point. But don't count on anymore. I think that was it for me.

You too make a valid point. The romance wasn't pivotal to the story. We still would have learned about Sal and his past, and had a compelling story. However, there's something about sexual tension and the need to resolve it. Most readers can't stand it when there isn't a happily ever after ending, or if two people who are attracted to one another don't eventually bone. As far as the whole falling in like with a jerk goes, Cooper is a little too old to be doing that. If she were in her early 20s, I'd say sure. But she's 27 or so. Old enough to be done with bad boys, unless there's more to her damaged psyche than a was explored in the novel, but Shelby didn't sell that, and I'm not buying.

Beyond that, I too would love to read a spinoff about the kitchen war. I loved those scenes so much. My face pulls itself into a smile every time I think about them.

Nonsense. You make a plethora of good points.

Oh! I thought she was 30. But at any rate, yes, she is old enough to know better. And you are right - unless the death in the family is her trauma (which is possible, but the reader gets the idea that it is affecting her in other ways) - we have no indication that Cooper has the kind of damaged psyche that would lead her to become an adult attracted to someone like Sal.

Right? That was my favorite part of the book. Bonnie and Pearl were both amazingly-drawn characters, and the text surrounding that situation was so believable.

You are too kind.

27 is practically 30. The years start to mean a little less the older we get. By that I mean, a ten-year gap in a marriage between a 50 and a 60-year-old is a drop in the bucket when compared to the difference between an 18 and a 21-year-old. So much happens in those early years. So much growth. Anyhow, I digress.

I loved all the head hopping this book supplies. Every chapter inside a new character added another layer of depth to the onion of a novel. I was skeptical of Bozer's chapter. I thought, go ahead as see if you can make me like a guy who wears a Confederate flag bandana. Betcha can't. And while I didn't love Bozer at the end, I didn't dislike him and I think if push came to holy hell, I'd trust him with my life.

Head hopping is a good way to put it. And agreed - Bozer was not the annoying, jerk character I initially thought he would be, even if he did not end up being my favorite. Actually, the majority of characters were like that; not all bad or all good (even annoying Sal had his good points). Shelby has a tremendous ability to write "real" characters.

"Real" is the word for her character development. They practically jumped off the page and started drinking coffee spiked with rum. I don't know if I'd want to hang out with many of them for a whole winter, a dark, sunless winter, but I could go to a dive bar with them for sure. I'm really looking forward to what Shelby comes up with next.

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