Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Admirers of Gaarder's first translated work, the bestselling Sophie's World, will be familiar with this Norwegian ex-philosophy teacher's talent for transforming what is essentially a vigorous round of mental aerobics into unpredictable, absorbing fun. This novel, which was published in Norway before Sophie's World, is another offbeat delight, ontology masquerading as an ingeniously constructed fairy tale. It tells the story of the 12-year-old Hans Thomas, who is driving with his father from Norway to Greece in a quest to retrieve his errant mother. The plot thickens when a midget at a gas station on the Swiss border slips Hans Thomas a miniature magnifying glass, and then the next evening, on a stop in Dorf, a kindly old baker presents him with a correspondingly tiny book and swears him to secrecy. As Hans Thomas sneaks looks at the book, between sightseeing and philosophizing with his father on their trip south, it gradually unfurls a strange story of a shipwrecked sailor and his rather unusual game of solitairea story that has puzzling links with Hans Thomas's own life. By the time the mystery is resolved, Hans Thomas and his family learn important lessons about themselves and their past, as Gaarder walks the reader through a complex inquiry into the nature of being and destiny. Less light-footed than Sophie's World, this work relies on fantastical symbolism for its central allegory; some readers will find a plot that hinges on such elements as a magic vanishing island and sparkling Rainbow Soda too corny for their tastes. Others, however, will deem it enchanting, especially since all the whimsy is balanced by deft portraits of Hans Thomas and his gruff, good-hearted father. (July)
The ALAN Review - Jeanne M. Gerlach
This book is structured as a deck of cards, with each chapter representing one card in the deck. It combines reality, fantasy, and family history to help young Hans Thomas discover the meaning of life. Readers travel from Norway to Greece with Hans and his father as they search for Hans' mother, who left them years earlier. Reading the memoirs of a shipwrecked sailor compels Hans to learn about the distant past in an effort to understand his mother's disappearance. The Solitaire Mystery is a compelling and exciting read that may encourage young readers to think more about the meaning of their own lives.
Gaarder (Sophie's World (LJ 9/1/94) once again presents a charming fantasy in which a young person discovers his identity and a missing parent by means of written communications that are not to be shared with grown-ups. Hans Thomas and his bibulous father are driving to Greece from Norway in search of Hans's long-missing mother. They encounter a dwarf who gives Hans a magnifying glass with which he can (secretly) read a miniature book delivered to him in a sticky bun. Though the symbolism of the deck of cards in the mystery is transparent, the reader will enjoy the cleverness with which the story is assembled. Less didactic than Sophie's World, this novel still probes philosophical questions. Recommended for adult and young adult collections in public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/96.]Ann Irvine, Montgomery Cty. P.L., Silver Spring, Md.
School Library Journal
YAThere are both similarities and differences between this novel and Gaarder's previous book, Sophie's World (Farrar, 1994). Both are fantasies involving an interconnected story-within-a-story, an absent parent, and lessons in philosophy. Here, however, the emphasis is on the stories and not the lessons, and the characters really come alive. Hans Thomas, 12, and his father journey from Norway to Greece, seeking Hans Thomas's mother, who abandoned them when the boy was 4. During their journey, Hans Thomas is given a tiny book and a magnifying glass so he can read about the fantastic adventures of Baker Hans, who was marooned on a island where playing cards came to life, rainbow soda altered taste and consciousness, and beautiful goldfish figured importantly. YAs will find the fairy tale in the tiny book pure entertainment; the larger story explores issues such as dependence on a single parent with a drinking problem, a boy's feelings about a mother he can barely remember, and the child's struggle to understand a troubled family history.Molly Connally, Kings Park Library, Fairfax County, VA
A playful, ingenious, frequently moving but occasionally perplexing celebration of our persistent search for answers to the ultimate questionsWho are we? Where have we come from? Where are we going?disguised as a fairy tale/adventure.
This Norwegian writer's first novel, Sophie's World (1994), used the guise of a novel-within-a-novel to present a droll history of philosophy, apparently intended for adolescents. It's unclear this time out who Gaarder imagines his audience to be. While the bare outlines of the story (a young boy and his despairing father go in search of the boy's mother, who has abandoned them; the boy is given a book, possibly magical, by a kindly old man; the book unlocks a series of remarkable revelations about the boy's life) might seem to be aimed at children or young adults, some of the imagery is dauntingly arcane. The book the boy is given is the history of two men, marooned 50 years apart on a magical island. The first man, his imaginative powers mysteriously enhanced, brings a deck of playing cards to life. The second man (the grandson of the first) sets in motion a series of events that lead to the island's destruction; he and the Joker escape. The Joker, who "sees too deeply and too much," is the only one of the cards to wonder about his origins and purpose in life. Hans Thomas, the little boy, turns out to be the descendant to these castaways. The Joker, ever-youthful, takes an interest in the boy, helping Hans and his father to reunite with Hans' mother. There are passages here (on the wonderful island, the lives of the figures who have emerged from the deck of cards, the debates on life's purpose) that are ingenious and startling, reminiscent of the philosophical fantasies of the Victorian writer George MacDonald. But too often Gaarder's musings seem repetitious, the imagery hazy, the conclusions unsurprising.
Fascinating and frustrating in equal measure.