'Sally Jones and the False Rose' is the second outing for gorilla and ships engineer Sally Jones, but the first one that I've read. The reason I picked this one up was the mention of Shetland on the back cover - which was slightly misleading, but not disappointingly so (I was specifically looking for a Shetland-related children's book at the time and it sort of ticks that box).
A couple of years ago I bought the first Sally Jones for my godson, thinking it sounded like a good bet for a young boy - murder, gorillas and boats all sounded okay to me. I forgot to ask him what he thought of it, but I've really enjoyed this outing for a couple of reasons, one of them being that the cover and storyline stand out from a lot of the 9-12 age range books I see, and that's something of a relief. Making the main protagonist a gorilla is a great idea, Sally transcends ideas about age and gender - she's loyal and kind, a skilled engineer who quickly makes friends in the adult world she inhabits, but she's also an outsider as a child might be.
She can read and write, but not speak, and she's smart but vulnerable without the chief at her side - it's not easy for a lone gorilla to make her way in the world without ending up in a zoo, as somebody's pet, or as is occasionally threatened - carved into steaks for an upscale restaurant. It's a setup that gives plenty of scope for Wegelius to explore some issues in a delicate way. We know Sally is as much of a person as we are, she's our narrator after all, but she's very much at the mercy of those around her.
Bad luck for Sally then, when after finding a priceless pearl necklace hidden aboard their Clyde puffer, The Hudson Queen, her and the Chief's efforts to find its rightful owner take them to Glasgow where Sally falls into the clutches of some extremely nasty gangsters, becoming the hostage that forces the chief to take contraband whisky to prohibition America. The pearls pass through various hands, hotly pursued by the gang leader, Moira, who feels like she has an entirely immoral claim to them.
Sally meanwhile is trying to make the best of her truly awful situation, make friends, and somehow avoid Glasgow becoming embroiled in all-out gang warfare as mafia types move in and the riverside gangs make their own bid for power. The whole thing is set against a convincingly miserable Scottish winter, the stakes are high, and the action barrels along at a wicked pace.
The Shetland connection comes in the form of the mysterious 'Shetland Jack'. Pearl fisherman, dodgy character, and figure of mystery. I loved this book because the peril always seemed real, the ending is satisfying, Sally is an easy character to love, there's a ton of atmosphere, great illustrations, and overall because Sally's choices are genuinely difficult. Good prevails in the end, but sometimes I wondered how we'd get there (the answer is mostly in Sally's innate kindness and gift for friendship). A great book for readers of all ages!