Deadly Outbreaks

September 12, 2013 non-fiction, Science 8

17593167Title: Deadly Outbreaks: How Medical Detectives Save Lives Threatened by Killer Pandemics, Exotic Viruses, and Drug-Resistant Parasites
Author: Alexandra Levitt
Source: from publisher for review
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Review Summary: The stories were fascinating but were often told in a clinical way that reduced the drama and my sense of connection to the people in the story.

As the subtitle suggests, Deadly Outbreaks is all about medical mysteries. For suspicious cases where multiple patients die or fall ill and the reason is unknown, epidemiologists  are often called in to help determine the cause. Some of these investigations are retrospective, but many require clever deduction to take place quickly in order to prevent more people from becoming sick.

The true stories included in Deadly Outbreaks were all interesting and all very different. Although the first story gave away the ending too early, all of the others had me reading quickly to find out what happened next. I am extremely interested in the intersection of biology and math, so the clever way epidemiologists used the data to solve problems and save lives made this my kind of book. However, some flaws in the writing kept this from being the riveting narrative non-fiction story it had the potential to be.

Two things in particular struck me as off about the writing but I did have an ARC so it’s possible these will be fixed before the book goes to print. In my copy, the tone of the book was very clinical. When we learned about the people involved in each case, the sections introducing them made me feel like someone was reading a resume at me. A few personal details were thrown in, but even these just felt factual. There were also too many details. For instance, the first case wrap-up includes a listing of which borough in NYC the patients were from. Information like this was far less interesting than the main story and slowed the pace of the whole book.

The science was the other big problem. In some cases, many scientific details were thrown in that even as someone in science, I didn’t find interesting (the size of a particular gene, for example). Often these asides weren’t explained well enough that someone without a science background would get anything out of them. These bits were really asides, so if you have no science background you could easily read this book and skip them without being confused. They didn’t, however, serve a useful purpose. Although I’ve spent a while on the bad bits, I don’t mean to suggest this wasn’t an enjoyable read. The stories were so interesting, they basically speak for themselves, so if you have an interest in medical mysteries, this is a book I’d recommend.

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8 Responses to “Deadly Outbreaks”

  1. Laurie C

    I was trying to read a science book recently (for the second time!) and finally ended up bringing it back to the library again. It must be hard to write a science book for a general audience. You either dumb it down too much or it’s too difficult even for readers with some scientific background.

    • DoingDewey

      It’s true! When I read books that relate to my research, I often feel they are more simplified than I like but I can also see where they might be confusing for someone without a biology background. I think some authors might simplify things but don’t want to take the number of words it would require to explain something really clearly, so they end up with a middle-of-the-road level of difficulty that just doesn’t work for anybody. Inversely, the authors who I think have done this best are those who’ve completely committed to writing something simple or something more challenging.

    • DoingDewey

      I hope so too 🙂 It did have a lot of potential even just in the raw facts of the story, so I think it could end being really good.

  2. Cavershamragu

    Thanks for this Katie as I headn;t heard of it and as a fan of Crichton’s thrillers and TV shows like HOUSE this sounds just like my kind of book 🙂

    • DoingDewey

      It’s true, it does seem like a great book for someone who likes Crichton! Although it’s certainly not as suspenseful as Crichton’s writing, it’s interesting to get a more realistic perspective on medical mysteries 🙂

    • DoingDewey

      If you’re looking for scary, I’m not sure this is the book for you. Despite some writing issues (which hopefully will be improved in the final version), this was an interesting read, but it was never especially suspenseful.