when I first saw KRAKATOA some eight or whatever years ago, I flipped through it at the bookstore and thought it unimpressive. hardcovers are what, $25 these days, and if you think about it, that's four or five movies (depending on the theatre/ netflix or blockbuster) or it's a lobster dinner or its a night's stay at a guesthouse in bali or singapore. don't underestimate the power of $25 ! since that time, I've now read 7 full Simon Winchester books and have a copy of one or two more buried somewhere on the e-reader, and this wide-ranging, curious, evocative writer really deserves the praise he's received.
as others have mentioned, Winchester's talent lies in immersing you in the world in which he describes. it's not just a matter of evoking the Dutch East Indies through smell and cuisine, as a merely competent reader can-- it's telling you period detail like the Krakatoa explosion was the first global-level news item to be carried across the recently-laid telegraph network-- it was the first "breaking news" so to speak, in an era when passenger pigeons were still being used to carry the dispatches across national lines and when gutta-percha-coated copper wires finally solved the problem of crossing the entire atlantic ocean with undersea cables.
details like that-- and the simmering indonesian national identity; the evocative 'bare-breasted balinese girls who walked across black sands' in the actually existing south sea paradise before contemporary religion arose and ruined everything-- these kind of things draw you into the world Winchester is creating, and the result is a solid, master-level work of craftsmanship. 4/5 solid