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the Complete Review
the complete review - history


Simon Winchester

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To purchase Krakatoa

Title: Krakatoa
Author: Simon Winchester
Genre: History
Written: 2003
Length: 384 pages
Availability: Krakatoa - US
Krakatoa - UK
Krakatoa - Canada
Krakatau - France
Krakatau - Deutschland
Krakatoa - Italia
  • The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883

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Our Assessment:

A- : enjoyable and interesting, very well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 1/6/2003 Simon Caterson
Daily Telegraph . 2/6/2003 John Preston
The Economist A 27/3/2003 .
Financial Times A 23/5/2003 Michael Glover
The Guardian . 21/6/2003 Chris Lavers
The Independent B+ 7/6/2003 Toby Green
The LA Times . 11/5/2003 Kenneth Reich
The NY Times A 25/4/2003 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 20/4/2003 Richard Ellis
The Observer . 8/6/2003 Robert MacFarlane
The Spectator A 7/6/2003 Justin Marozzi
Sunday Telegraph . 18/5/2003 Anne Wroe
Sydney Morning Herald A 7/6/2003 Linda Jaivin
Time A 12/5/2003 Lev Grossman
The Times . 21/5/2003 Simon Barnes
TLS . 12/9/2003 Claudio Vita-Finzi
USA Today A 4/6/2003 Ayesha Court
The Washington Post . 30/3/2003 Valerie Jablow
Die Welt . 23/8/2003 Wieland Freund

  Review Consensus:

  Impressive, enjoyable

  From the Reviews:
  • "Though the style may at times seem a little overblown, there is no doubt that, where the research is concerned, the money is all up on the screen." - Simon Caterson, The Age

  • "This is bracingly apocalyptic stuff, orchestrated by a very steady hand: atmospheric, chock-full of information and with a constantly escalating sense of pace and tension." - John Preston, Daily Telegraph

  • "(H)e has written so engagingly discursive an account of the events leading up to the cataclysm -- which finally occurs, after a masterful build-up of literary and geological tension, only on page 234 -- that it is impossible to be so harsh. What Mr Winchester has provided, appropriately enough, is a lavish rijstafel of a book, whose many dishes can be sampled according to individual palates." - The Economist

  • "The book is a fluent, eloquent and well-calibrated balance of spirited and fast-moving storytelling, historical analysis and scientific explanation. Though digressive -- Winchester finds it difficult not to get excited about the things of this earth ("A well-made barograph is a joy to behold") and few people know as much as he does about the relentless westward march of telegraph poles -- it never sags." - Michael Glover, Financial Times

  • "The geologist in me found this new outing fascinating, but if you lack such an internal parasite and intend to buy Krakatoa because Winchester's last book was so good, you may wish to think again." - Chris Lavers, The Guardian

  • "This is a story of superlatives, and one that Winchester tells well. Although his prelude to the eruption is drawn out, when it comes to the event itself, the narrative tightens and he builds up a palpable tension." - Toby Green, The Independent

  • "(A)n exhaustive and often exciting account of the Krakatoa events. In particular, it is outstanding in describing the sequence of events from 1:06 p.m., the moment of the first great explosion, on Aug. 26, 1883, to the immediate aftermath of the climactic blast of 10:02 a.m. the following day. (...) This is a major work in the fecund literature of disasters, so it is disappointing that there are not better maps of the area affected by the Krakatoa eruption." - Kenneth Reich, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Krakatoa is a trove of wonderfully arcane information. The author has been able to attach so many tentacles to a single event (...) that there seems to be nowhere he can't go." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "Krakatoa (the book) is, also like its subject, deserving of superlatives.: It is thrilling, comprehensive, literate, meticulously researched and scientifically accurate; it is one of the best books ever written about the history and significance of a natural disaster." - Richard Ellis, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This is a book which is beguilingly happy to follow its own nose -- a pursuit that leads the reader to all sorts of unexpected places. Winchester writes fascinatingly, for instance, of the art-historical reverberations of the explosions" - Robert MacFarlane, The Observer

  • "Winchester is to be commended for making subduction zones, sea-floor spreading, tectonics and fault-zones appealing to the lay reader. These are some of the best passages in the book." - Justin Marozzi, The Spectator

  • "Winchester writes with his customary colour and verve. His eye for detail, always one of the delights of reading him, is as good as ever. (...) As a natural encyclopedist, Winchester is famous for his entertaining digressions and diversions, but here they merge into a tiresome tendency to preach and teach." - Anne Wroe, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Winchester pursues every last bit of historical, scientific and aesthetic matter thrown up by the eruption. There are virtual lava flows of information. (...) Such is Winchester's talent as a storyteller that he enlivens even more naturally sober subjects, such as scientific debates about the nature of the earth's composition or the distribution of animal and plant species in the Indonesian archipelago." - Linda Jaivin, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "In Krakatoa, Winchester has found not only a rich subject but also an able collaborator. This is an island that knew how to build tension. (...) Winchester is an extraordinarily graceful writer. He may be the world's greatest crafter of smooth transitions, and he has the good sense never to resist an irresistible digression." - Lev Grossman, Time

  • "(T)he book takes great arabesques through every possible discipline. Winchester’s understanding of the bang seeks to make polymaths of us all." - Simon Barnes, The Times

  • "Simon Winchester's diverting and moving Krakatoa wraps the 1883 eruption in several instructive layers" - Claudio Vita-Finzi, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Building thrillerlike suspense, Winchester gives voice to firsthand accounts from scientists, ship captains and local observers of the buildup of volcanic activity that ended so spectacularly." - Ayesha Court, USA Today

  • "All of which makes for a great story, which Simon Winchester mostly delivers. Part history, scientific detective story and travelogue, with all the storytelling zeal of his bestselling The Map that Changed the World, Winchester's new book complements the more scholarly approach of earlier volumes on the subject." - Valerie Jablow, The Washington Post

  • "Natürlich muss man für soviel Ehrgeiz formal bezahlen. Weil Winchester die Abschweifung zum Erzählprinzip erhebt, hat er mit seinen diversen Retardierungen zu kämpfen." - Wieland Freund, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The subtitle suggests that Krakatoa focusses narrowly on The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883. That is certainly the dramatic highpoint, but Simon Winchester's book takes a much broader look, examining -- it sometimes seems -- absolutely everything that might have anything to do with that great volcanic eruption. A trained geologist, but with wide-ranging interests (as attested to by the variety of books he's published), Winchester can handle such an approach; indeed, he does so very well. The book meanders, but Winchester leads the reader nicely along, and it is an always engaging and interesting read.
       The Prelude already offers a wonderful introduction to the strange place that was and is Krakatoa, as Winchester describes two visits he took to that area, separated by about a quarter of century -- during which time the new volcano growing on the remnants of the old one had grown some five hundred feet taller. Obviously there are incredible forces at work here -- and when he gets around to it Winchester does a fine job of explaining what they are and how they work.
       First, however, he offers historical background -- a good deal of it. The Portuguese forays into the area that is now Indonesia, then the Dutch colonialists. Eventually, he introduces the reader to numerous of the players on or near the scene in the early 1880s, nicely (if somewhat elaborately) setting the scene for the events of 1883.
       Winchester also offers an extensive geology lesson, not stinting here either, introducing plate tectonics and the Wallace Line and the fascinating proof of the shifting earth found in the magnetic alignment of rock samples. He digresses to Greenland, where he went as a twenty-one-year-old student on an expedition that helped gather "some of those first confirmations of continental drift" (a very worthwhile aside, as are almost all those found in the book). He looks at the evidence for previous Krakatoan eruptions (it obviously went up in smoke previously, but it's unclear whether it ever did so in recorded history -- or at least whether it was ever properly recorded).
       Winchester also makes a big deal about how this was "the first true catastrophe in the world to take place after establishment of a worldwide network of telegraph cables" -- which, while not quite allowing for the instant news of our day, did spread word of what had happened remarkably quickly. Winchester follows the news of the disaster closely -- how and where it was related --, and he is at his best in the small digressions, as when he discusses the first small mention of the Krakatoan rumblings in The Times, allowing him to explain everything from news-gathering of the day to the system of Lloyd's agents (and nicely connecting all these together).
       Most every aspect of the disaster is considered: the barometric readings that resulted, the way the sound of the explosion travelled (and how far), the resulting enormous ocean waves (and what happened when they hit shore) -- fascinating stuff, all of it, though in the minutiae one does miss the perhaps expected absolute big-bang-climax of the explosion itself (in large part because the explosion wasn't quite so simple and didn't amount to one big bang).
       Winchester also tells of the after-effects -- including the rise of a more militant Islam in Indonesia -- and then brings things up to date in discussing what became of the Krakatoa-site. From the birth of Anak Krakatoa (the new volcano rising up on the old site) to the flora and fauna that quickly established itself there to the monitoring of the site he makes it clear that the story of Krakatoa is a continuing one. Appropriately enough, he closes with a visit to Anak Krakatoa.

       Krakatoa wasn't the biggest volcanic explosion even in recent memory (Mount Tambora, in 1815 was apparently considerably larger), but, for a variety of reasons (which Winchester also considers), remains the best-known. Winchester does an admirable job of setting the scenes and explaining events in this book. He also tells all his stories well, and displays a nice humorous touch (often in asides and informative footnotes -- so for example in quoting from an 1883 issue of The Times, describing the Krakatoan-coloured sky in very fancy language, he offers the parenthetical note that "Peter Mark Roget's Thesuarus had been available since 1852")
       Krakatoa isn't exhaustive, but it offers a wealth of information on most every aspect of the volcanic eruption. It is a very entertaining read, and certainly recommended.

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Krakatoa: Reviews: Simon Winchester: Other books by Simon Winchester under review:

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About the Author:

       English author Simon Winchester works as a journalist and has written a multitude of books.

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© 2003-2011 the complete review

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