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BOOKS

Not Just for Kids: 'Recovery Road' by Blake Nelson and 'We All Fall Down' by Nic Sheff

Los Angeles Times

Recovery Road

A Novel

Blake Nelson

Scholastic: 320 pp., $17.99, ages 13 and up

We All Fall Down

A Memoir

Nic Sheff

Little, Brown: 348 pp., $17.99, ages 15 and up

We live in a society filled with temptation, where drugs and alcohol are illegal for minors but still easy to obtain. They're so readily available, in fact, that 11 million American youths need treatment for substance abuse, according to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Yet few teen addicts get the help they need. And those who do are likely to relapse before they truly recover.

It's these hard truths that are tackled in two new books for young adults, each of which handles the subject slightly differently. Blake Nelson's "Recovery Road" is a fictional account of 16-year-old "Mad Dog Maddie," whose rap sheet includes drinking alcohol, downing OxyContin, smoking hash, snorting coke, stealing a car, getting arrested and being thrown out of her home and sent to a halfway house.

Nic Sheff's "We All Fall Down" is the real-life account of Sheff's struggles to recover from addictions to increasingly hard-core substances. He started smoking pot at age 12 before the high no longer worked, and he moved on to alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin — and rehab. Rewind, and repeat.

Both books are told from the addict's perspective, offering up-close and personal views of their protagonists' descents into substance abuse and the tragic effect on those who care most about them. "Recovery Road" just offers a slightly more sanitized version of the rehabilitation process — one that is likely to appeal to readers whose interest in illicit substances is purely vicarious. The follow-up to "Tweak," Sheff's New York Times bestseller about his meth addiction, "We All Fall Down" is a grittier, in-the-trenches retelling of his recovery that will resonate with readers who are struggling with their own addictions or those of someone they love.

Written in staccato and presented in chapters that are at most six pages long, "Recovery Road" opens with Maddie at Spring Meadow rehab center in Oregon. Maddie's best friend there is Trish, a fellow alcoholic who paralyzed her best friend in a drunk-driving accident. The true focal point of Maddie's attention, however, is Stewart — an older addict with whom she falls in love.

Falling in love at any point along the addiction trajectory is bound to be problematic, as addiction tends to cloud reality and is in itself unhealthful. Maddie's involvement with Stewart is no exception as the two exit Spring Meadow and try to reintegrate themselves into the environments that first led them to drinking and drugging — a difficult hurdle made even more so because it needs to be jumped while clean and straight.

"Recovery Road" is an intriguing look at the aftermath of addiction, as Maddie returns to high school and is forced to find a way to fit in to the social order that won't land her back in rehab. "It's extremely weird to be sober," she says, attending parties where everyone else is drunk. "It's like I'm watching everything on TV."

Though "Recovery Road" is a little heavy-handed about the high-stakes after-effects of teen drug use — there are multiple deaths throughout the book — it is curiously light on the details of what led Maddie to use in the first place other than "being the smart girl who somehow decided she shouldn't be or [was] afraid to be."

"We All Fall Down" goes into far more psychological detail. Starting in 2002, when Sheff was 20 years old and shooting heroin in San Francisco, "We All Fall Down" benefits from hindsight. Divided into parts set off with datelines and penned in the present tense, "We All Fall Down" has a similar staccato writing style to "Recovery Road," but it is more graphic.

A word of caution for parents: Linguistically, Sheff is liberal in his use of F-bombs and other off-color epithets. The details he chooses to share about the physical effects of his hard-core drug use, his sexual antics and his no-holds-barred behavior are startling and raw, as is his emotional candor.

As Sheff moves from an Arizona rehab center to one in New Mexico, he only pretends to follow the 12 steps before abandoning them entirely. Ultimately, "We All Fall Down" is about recovery, but the majority of its pages focus on relapse, which is where many addicts end up — falling off the wagon and into old patterns, which, in Sheff's case, means taking advantage of women, contemplating suicide, fantasizing about book deals and, of course, "numbing out."

"The only thing I've been trustworthy of is being untrustworthy," Sheff acknowledges, as he steals from his girlfriend and then his employer.

Readers will be propelled through "We All Fall Down" by Sheff's unabashed, call-it-like-it-is writing that really gets into the mind of the addict. Watching him get from where he was to a bestselling author is the icing on the cake of a book that shows there's light at the end of the exceptionally long, dark tunnel known as addiction.

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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