Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Review

In this debut novel, a forensic librarian uncovers letters that lead to an explanation for her father’s absence. Vela Ostofvold is in Rome at a symposium about her work as a forensic librarian, “profiling how ephemera, inscriptions, and notations create distinct book personalities.” A rather sad, mysterious man named William Dean approaches her. He tells her that he went to school with her mother, Olivia, with whom he’s lost contact, in the Canadian town where Vela was also raised while Olivia pursued her career as an opera singer. Vela, still in Rome, then goes to the antiquarian bookstore discovered during her vacations spent with her mother. She chats with friend Amelia, who now runs the shop, and wonders if Dean could be the father she has never known. Later, Vela and Amelia are packing up Olivia’s Rome flat, since the building is being sold. In a letter of instructions, the ever traveling Olivia mentions that she plans to go to Oxford, England, to visit Penelope Arthur, her childhood teacher. Vela then finds letters from Penelope, which reveal the teacher had offered to raise Vela but went to India instead. Vela travels to Oxford, where she has a consulting project, and visits Penelope, whose memory is failing. Thanks to material provided by Penelope, however, and after another conversation with Dean, Vela finally discovers a past tragedy and her father’s identity. The novel concludes with Vela’s return to Rome and a new opportunity to reignite her romance with Franco, Amelia’s cousin. First-time novelist Sikstrom brings ambitious scope to this narrative, which encompasses a compelling family mystery, a heroine whose career could be the subject of its own series, several exotic locales, and a fairy tale–like love story. While Sikstrom is mostly successful in handling all these elements, the narrative is occasionally unbalanced. For example, Vela’s current age and home base are left a bit hazy, and there’s digressive detail about Penelope’s sojourn in India. Overall, however, this is a rich and entertaining debut. A lush, atmospheric novel that combines literary detective work, romance and international flair.


Reviewed by Pearl Luke

Watermark has one of the most interesting protagonists I have ever encountered. Dr. Vela Ostofvold is a "forensic librarian," an occupation that until now existed solely in Sari Sikstrom's imagination. As she soon allows us to learn, the protagonist's job is to analyze books as physical rather than intellectual objects. Through the study of "ephemera, inscriptions and notations," the character tells us, "a secondary story beyond print accumulates." That the main character is a Sherlock Holmes of the book world fascinates me, as does the idea that books can reveal so much more than the story contained in their pages.

As the novel opens, readers meet the main character as she introduces herself at a symposium for forensic scientists: "Hello, I am Vela Ostofvold, and I am a Forensic Librarian." I had a captive audience and I {needed to} make the most of it. I smiled back at the group growing around me. "Does anyone have a well read book with them?" I waited while onlookers opened zippers on knapsacks and tugged at Velcro fasteners. I chose the volume with the most obvious wear. I balanced the spine on my palm. "Where has this book been? The dust jacket is missing, and the cover is faded, think of a possible environment." Several voices responded. "Outside in the sun." On a table by a window," said another. "Good." I ran my finger along the edge of the book. "I see traces of gilding, not much left, perhaps eroded by moisture." I flipped the pages. "The readers left greasy fingerprints. This suggests a casual environment where eating and reading are acceptable." I turned to the title page. "No inscription or name." I ran my fingers along the margins bordering the text, stopping on several short strokes made with a ballpoint pen. "You might look at a series of lines as a careless doodle, or the beginning of a musical score. A stray slip of paper hidden in a book may hold a combination to a safe which may destroy one fortune and build another." I looked up and closed the book. "This was not a possession. I suggest it is a communal book from a seaside bed and breakfast." The person who supplied the volume confirmed, "I picked it up in a guest house in Spain." He stepped forward to retrieve the book.

I had the pleasure of mentoring Ms. Sikstrom as she wrote the first drafts of this book, and I was hooked on the story before I had finished that passage. What an original and memorable character! The sort that no editor forgets, and that every writer should aim to create. There is a place in literature for characters of every occupation, but my mind raced with excitement when I discovered such freshness of imagination. Most of the book is written in prose as concise and lively as the passage above, and the diction is exquisitely original, with many impressive lines and descriptions, such as when Vela examines another book and says, "it is as if a dragonfly dipped its tail in ink and flew over the page," or when the gladioli plants in the hotel landscape create a "phantasmal army with their swords raised." On every page the story provides proof that Sikstrom has the talent necessary to become an author of acclaim. Watermark does feel somewhat rushed, perhaps self-published before it reached its potential. So despite my enjoyment of the story's many pleasures, I wonder just how much more this book might have revealed if more time had been spent developing all the wonderful ideas and plot points that at the moment feel passed over. Nonetheless, the book will be a treasure trove for those who read more for language and originality than for plot development.


Reviewed By Sarah Lowry
5 star

Watermark by Sari Sikstrom is the story of a young woman’s search for her own identity. Vela lives in the shadow of her famous opera singer mother and was raised by her grandparents. Although her mother was often away when she was young, Vela has a good relationship with her. It is Vela’s unknown father who haunts her life. While in Rome to pack up her mother’s rental home, Vela discovers letters between her grandmother and one of her mother’s childhood teachers. These letters lead Vela into a past full of love and heartache. While Vela journeys through the past to find her own identity, she discovers that what she has always needed and wanted has been with her from childhood, and she learns the reason her mother has kept her father’s identity hidden.

Watermark is a story that kept me yearning to know more. Sari Sikstrom manages to tell not one but two stories in this novel, which had me entranced. I loved learning about the lives of Vela’s mother, her grandmother, and her mother’s teacher. Sikstrom seamlessly wove these stories together with Vela’s. The descriptions of both Rome and India were vivid and full of imagery, enabling me to see these places as though I was there. I would have liked to see a little more of the romance and about Vela’s unusual job as a Forensic Librarian. I’m a huge fan of books, so I found Vela’s job intriguing and loved the emphasis on books throughout the story. Sikstrom’s writing has a lovely poetic quality that drew me in and captivated me. I loved this story and can’t wait to read more by this wonderful author.


Reviewed By Maria Beltran
5 star

Watermark: The Truth Beneath the Surface by Sari Sikstrom revolves around the life of forensic librarian Dr. Vela Ostofvold. She is the love child of Olivia, an internationally renowned singer. She grows up in Canada in her grandparents’ care and later joins her mother in Italy, where as a fourteen-year-old girl, her interest in books is nurtured by her friendship with Amelia, daughter of the owner of Persolino’s Rare Bookstore. She also gets to know Amelia’s cousin, Franco. Vela finds a bundle of interesting letters in her mother’s apartment with clues relating to her father’s identity. As she sets out for Oxford, England, she faces the nagging doubts about her relationship with Franco and her father’s real identity. Will she ever find what she is looking for?

Sari Sikstrom, author of Watermark: The Truth Beneath the Surface, is a master story teller. Her creative writing style is lyrical and poetic. This, however, does not diminish the clarity of the story. On the contrary, her choice of words enhances the narrative. Set in Italy and England, she brings her readers to exotic India through the letters that were written to her grandmother ages ago. It is easy to relate to the characters in the story because they are well developed and they possess strengths and flaws like all of us. Consistent and clear, this is the tale of a young woman’s quest to find the truth beneath the surface. This is a refreshing story told from a unique perspective. As a forensic librarian, Vela is an expert in deciphering the inscriptions left in old books by their previous owners and, as some truths are revealed, she tries to find the truth about her own existence. I highly recommend this book!

Reviewed By Anne-Marie Reynolds
5 stars

In Watermark: The Truth Beneath the Surface by Sari Sikstrom, we find Vela signing copies of her new book when she is approached by a young girl who wants to know how much a book she inherited is worth. Vela reveals that it could tell the girl a bit about her ancestry, something that Vela is looking into for herself. A journey to Italy where she finds letters in her mother’s apartment sends Vela on a journey to India where she starts to unravel the mystery surrounding her father. Vela is also on another quest – to find a dictionary that was published in 1656, a Glossographia. On her journey, she meets Amelia who becomes her friend and leads to her questioning whether she had anything to do with the disappearance of her father. Will Vela find everything she is looking for or does she keep on meeting dead ends?

Watermark: The Truth Beneath the Surface by Sari Sikstrom was an interesting read. It is a rare mix of a family story, with mystery, exotic locations and an interwoven love story that all come together in one gentle meandering journey. The characters were believably written and added to the story. I felt like I was living it, seeing it all in Technicolor through their eyes. For a debut author, I believe that Sari Sikstrom is onto a real winner here and I would love to read more from her in the very near future.

Reviewed By Jack Magnus
5 sta

Watermark: The Truth Beneath the Surface is a contemporary fiction novel written by Sari Sikstrom. Vela Ostofvold is in Rome to finish packing her mother's belongings at the flat she'd occupied for decades. Olivia Ostofvold is an opera star, and she and her daughter looked uncannily alike. Vela, however, is not in the limelight, except for when she's mistaken for her famous mother. She's a forensic librarian, who's currently promoting her book. Vela spent many summers sharing the apartment in Rome with her mother and is sad to be losing it, but the landlord has arranged for a sale of the property. While Vela's packing, she finds an old leather suitcase jammed underneath a bed. It's filled with keepsakes of her grandmother who, along with her grandfather, raised Vela in Alberta, Canada. Vela's always wondered about the identity of her father, and she's hoping that the letters she finds in the suitcase will finally resolve that mystery.

Sari Sikstrom's literary fiction novel, Watermark, is fascinating. Sikstrom's hero, Vela, is a forensic librarian. She can tell the provenance of a book, the types of readers, the climate and other details about the book and its history simply by examining its cover, spine and pages. Vela shares my love of books, especially old books, and I found myself getting excited for her when she visits Lord Gray's marvelous old library filled with leather-bound classics. Watermark is a multidimensional treat. There's Vela's Roman life and friends, including Franco, a potential love interest, and her old life in Alberta, Canada, on the farm where her Swedish grandparents raised her. And nestled in between is the entrancing correspondence found in that old suitcase. Will there be a sequel to Watermark in the near future? I certainly hope so -- I'd love to see more of the characters who became more like literary friends as I read through this book. Watermark is most highly recommended.

Reviewed By Patricia Reding
4 star

Dr. Vela Ostofvold, a forensic librarian, seeks to resolve things with her love interest, while simultaneously determining her paternity, in Watermark, by Sari Sikstrom. Set in Italy, readers will follow Vela, the daughter of an opera star, as she uncovers bits of her mother’s past, and travels to India via some old letters she finds, written by one of Olivia’s former teachers. Along the way, readers will visit portions of India in days long gone. Vela’s mother, Olivia, has never discussed Vela’s father, and though the young woman will not come out and ask for the details, she longs to fill in that portion of her past. As the story progresses, she discovers that she still loves Franco, the young man with whom she has had a relationship since childhood, notwithstanding their prior misunderstanding. With the help of her friend, Amelia, Vela finds answers to her mystery.

The background for Watermark, by Sari Sikstrom, is engaging and the relationships sincere. I especially enjoyed the camaraderie between Vela and Amelia, and the scenes set in Franco’s family bar. Sikstrom uses engaging and colorful language and provides snippets from the past that make the story “real.” But by far, my favorite moments were those spent in Amelia’s family bookstore and those when Vela engaged her skills as a forensic librarian. It is intriguing to think of the things one can learn about a work via the evidence they’ve left behind. In this regard, Watermark offers some interesting details and information that I am unlikely to forget!

Reviewed By Melinda Hills
5 star

The events that occur throughout a person’s life provide memories to create a wonderful collage that changes focus like images in a turning kaleidoscope. Different situations bring particular pieces to the foreground but underneath everything is a truth that serves as a watermark of authenticity. In Sari Sikstrom’s novel Watermark: The Truth Beneath the Surface, Vela consciously rotates the kaleidoscope of her life to try to discover the identity of her father. As she uncovers bits and pieces of information related to her mother’s youth and the connections that had been formed in those early years, she unveils a rich tapestry of hopes, dreams and disappointments that bring Vela to a very important understanding: each day and every friendship is precious. As a forensic librarian, Vela has dedicated her life to uncovering the personal story behind old books. Her private journey mirrors the examination of an old volume until Vela sees that enjoying the book is as important as simply owning it, if not more so. Now, as a young woman in love, she joins with her friends in creating an exciting new life – enjoying it and not just living it.

Watermark: The Truth Beneath the Surface by Sari Sikstrom is a poignant tale of past loves¸ missed opportunities, true devotion and the power to take control of your life. It makes you realize that not every question needs an answer, but rather an understanding of circumstances that allows you to move on in peace. Focusing on a quest for answers from the past should not blind anyone to the possibilities of life that are right in front of them, and that paying attention to clues found in the margins or the binding of the lives of those around us can serve as guides. What is and what can be mean so much more than what could have been in this thoughtful, heart-warming story.