BOOM! Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa is a thorough and often fascinating book which still ends up just slightly unsatisfying. He’s been criticised by some reviewers for too many digressions on topics whose connection to the volcano are real but not direct (the development of undersea cables, for instance, or the theory of plate tectonics). These sections do slow the book down but I was glad to have them: they built an impression of the author as an agreeable curator, a polymath who wanted to make sure everything that needed understanding was understood. In other words, it made me trust Winchester and his judgement.

On the other hand it’s apparent reading the book that he’s more at home with stories of geological heroism than human interest. He evokes the monstrous forces roiling beneath the island marvellously, but the human reaction to them is treated scrappily. It’s not that Winchester can’t sketch characters and events with aplomb; it’s that he seems unconcerned as to their fate – we rarely get told for sure whether any of the people we meet in the lead-up to the explosion survive it: the safety of his primary sources are all we can rely on. He also constantly mentions the scale of the Krakatoa explosion in the very long build-up to the event, but fumbles the climax – I had to check back and make sure that the latest “infernal sound” was actually the big one. Having spent so long stressing how the Krakatoa event was the first ‘global village’ news, there’s virtually nothing on global reaction, aid efforts, or the aftermath beyond its longer-term effects on Javanese Islam (and the adventures of a few naturalists).

It’s a very English science book in that sense: Winchester knows his material is spectacular but is constantly warring against the urge to be a showman. It doesn’t ruin his book – and a sensationalist account that didn’t give us all those facts would be worse – but Krakatoa isn’t as powerful as it could have been.