Warning: Do not read this book on an empty stomach. Preferably, you’ll have oysters and a great bottle of wine to pair.
I have not worked in a restaurant, but Stephanie Danler’s debut novel Sweetbitter makes it seem unbearable, beautiful, physically painful, delectable, emotionally draining, and worth every minute. The book follows Tess, a newcomer to New York City and the upscale restaurant business, as she navigates her way through this new world, trying to find herself and her place in it.
Both the city and the restaurant have such parallels: they seem shining and bright, beautiful and glamorous to any outsider, but the knowledgeable insider knows better. They see the seedy underbelly, where things are rotten and falling apart, the places where the flies congregate and the inspector hopefully won’t look.
The restaurant is like a microcosm of the city as a whole and Tess’s experience in the restaurant definitely shapes how she sees the city, and more broadly, the world.
The book is interesting as it is a coming-of-age novel about a girl, more of a young woman actually, but that age, 22, is when we are really beginning to make decisions about our lives here in the modern age.
College is over, the illusion is broken, there is no more stalling. What are we going to do with ourselves? Unless there’s more school in your future, now is when many kids are thrust out of the nest and into the realities of adult life.
But at the same time, we aren’t quite ready to give up on our youth yet and our 20s are definitely still a time for experimenting, reveling, and finding our place in the world—hopefully with less eyeliner, hair dye, and angst than in our teens.
The start of the book is an imperative statement: “You will develop a palate.” What is a palate? It is first of all the obvious, as Tess develops a taste for luxurious foods and begins to be able to discern the differences between types of wines, knowing every detail about each bottle and vintage.
But at the same time, that palate extends to so many other things, including sexual desire, drugs and alcohol, ambition, strength, family, and especially a taste for life, as she learns to allow herself to open up to every avenue, trying to figure out who she is going to be in this new world she’s stumbled into.
That statement about the palate isn’t just directed at Tess, either. It is for the benefit of the readers too, in hopes that this book and in a wider sense, our experiences and our willingness to be open to those experiences, will develop. We too are on a journey, just like Tess.
While we can be voyeurs on her journey, seeing everything she does for better or worse, we are the main characters on our own journey. It might be easy to judge some of Tess’s decisions, but it’s not so easy to stand at a remove from your own life.
Some books, like fantasy or science fiction, you read to take you away to another place or time. Books like Sweetbitter, so centered in the real world with all its grit and struggle, really bring you back to yourself. Though my life is not at all similar to Tess’s, I completely aligned with her struggle as a young woman of a similar age and I appreciate the way her story is told.
The moving-to-New-York-to-start-a-new-life plot line is by no means a new idea. It may be one of the oldest in the book. But Danler reinvents it just as she reinvents the male-centric coming-of-age novel, making the restaurant center stage, while New York plays a distant side role, popping up every once in a while.
The main focus is this restaurant and how her occupation as a backwaiter forms the whole of her identity during her time in the city. Outside the doors of the restaurant, not surrounded by her surrogate family, she is just another blank face in the crowd, completely indistinguishable from the thousands of other faces passing by.
She develops agency throughout the book, but holds back from using it. The reader knows she has the power based on the way her character changes. It is hard to even call her a character since she behaves so much as a real person.
The book is also divided into sections, each one named after a season: Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring. It's not new either, but an interesting and subtle division that echoes Tess's journey. We work with her through the heat of summer, watching her old life fall away with as autumn comes. Into the depths of the winter she faces hardship, times of loneliness, confusion, and finds the strength to face it all. By the spring, she is ready for new growth to break through, for new experiences, for a new Tess.
In the end, Tess’s final act proves how she has learned from her experience despite her missteps and seeming inaction throughout much of the book.
There is room for her to grow, but you could say the same about all of us at any moment in our lives. How interesting would we be if there were nothing left to try, nothing left to fail at?
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There is something truly captivating about a lost child.
Is that horrible to say?
But there’s a way that a community rallies around those stories, throws everything at finding the missing kid, and lives in every detail, whether it is whispered, shadowy gossip, or the news stories playing full-blast in every store and home.
When fourteen-year-old Tommy goes missing in the park when he should have been spending the night with his two best friends, his mother, Elizabeth, and sister, Kate, are left trying to piece together what might have happened to him. But the truth about what happened to Tommy is not as simple as it appears on the surface. And there may even be darker forces at work. . .
Paul Tremblay plays with the seemingly old story line of kid-lost-in-the-woods in a completely new and different way, bringing in his signature twist of the uncanny—is something supernatural at play or not? If you are interested in his first book, A Head Full of Ghosts, I’ve done a review of it here.
Tremblay excels at stringing readers along for the length of the narrative, building tension slowly with an ominous driving plot, while at the same time being very tight-fisted about his ghosts. As in the real world, there’s never really enough evidence to prove anything one way or the other. If you believe, you will see them, and if you don’t, you’ll find a way to shrug it off. But the oppressive atmosphere is still there.
When pages of Tommy’s diary start mysteriously appearing around the house and no one can account for how they got there, Elizabeth doesn’t know what to think. Her daughter swears she has nothing to do with it and seems scared of the whole situation. Of course she doesn’t want to think Tommy is dead, but could it be his ghost? Is someone breaking in? What is going on!?
This tactic, known in literary terms as the fantastic, is the constant struggle to decide whether what is happening can be explained rationally or can only be supernatural. Tremblay is a master of this technique, leaving not only the reader, but also the characters seesawing back and forth, trying to figure out if they are being visited by ghosts, if some type of prank is being enacted upon them, or if something more insidious is at work.
Devil’s Rock is an elusive tangle of lies, where everyone has a bit of an agenda, and as a reader, I never quite knew which characters I could fully trust. The whole book is definitely a study in grey areas; just because someone might be doing the wrong thing, they might be doing it for the right reason. Then again, they might just be trying to cover something up.
As the details come to light, the pit in my stomach only grew and grew—but that’s where Tremblay really excels as a horror writer. He has a knack for what will make us cringe in shock and horror, but immediately come back for more. The story felt so weirdly realistic too, like it could have been ripped straight from the headlines, that I felt a bit guilty at times, like I should be out looking for Tommy too, instead of sitting inside reading this book.
While the book is really told mostly from Elizabeth’s perspective, where the writing really takes off is with the kids. As in A Head Full of Ghosts, the children drive the narrative and there is a lot more going on underneath the surface with them than is originally apparent. I don't want to give any more away, but don't underestimate kids. They have deep internal and external lives that we often know nothing about.
In that way, the book is a type of coming-of-age, but instead of Holden Caulfield center stage in the moment, most of the action has already occurred. Tommy and his friends now take a back seat and we uncover them slowly, peeling away their layers of fear and walls of secrecy to find out they weren’t exactly who everyone thought they were, including Tommy.
While Ghosts was thinking a lot about representations of events through media and recollection, Devil’s Rock is much more immediate and present on the surface of an ongoing case. It means to unravel the past to get to an exact truth, no matter what that truth reveals.
A great book to get into fall, as you’re walking through the woods, wondering what might be out there, or what might be following you home.
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If you want to get all science-y about it, our innate fear of creepy-crawlies, heights, tornadoes, the dark, scary lions, and just about everything else we could possibly be afraid of comes from our ancestors. Having a fear of things that could potentially kill us was (and probably still is) sensible: If you lived longer, you passed your genes on, and blah-di-blah, now you rule the world with offspring.
What’s more interesting (to me at least) is what makes us want to be scared, to search out that adrenaline rush, to crave that moment of spine-tingling, eye-widening fear, to revel in jump scares, to read horror books, watch scary movies, and, in the month of October—so close, guys—even go to haunted houses for a real in-the-flesh scare. (There’s a pretty good book that explores all this, The Science of Fear, I recommend it if you are interested in the subject.)
But why do we do that to ourselves? Why not just revel in our safe, modern world? And it’s not like there aren’t plenty of things to be afraid of nowadays. Plane crashes, cybercrime, terrorism, guns, hacking, trolling, all these things that the modern world and technology have brought upon us.
And it’s not like everyone is waiting around looking for some wacko to chase them with a chainsaw, either. Some people HATE horror movies and won’t even drive past a graveyard let alone enter a Halloween store.
There is something to be said for feeling too secure though or too bored. I find horror—probably the most polarizing of all the genres—a true form of release. Everything is laid bare and true strength emerges. People are reborn, they grow into their true selves, or they don’t make it. Shit gets real.
I don’t think there’s any other genre that goes quite as deep or as hard into the human psyche and in a day and age when so many of us spend all day quietly sitting at computers funneling energy into amorphous jobs where we might not even really see the product of our work, where is our outlet?
We need to let it go. And I say, give horror a try.
The Hatching is a brilliant, cinematic mashup of old horror meets new horror. And the first thing you must know is that it doesn’t end here. This book is the first of at least two (although I have my suspicions about a trilogy, because who doesn’t love a good trilogy) with the second book being titled Skitter, coming in May 2017.
The basic plot skips around all over the world with a large cast of characters including a Steve Jobs type on vacation in Peru, an FBI agent who comes out to investigate a strange plane crash, the President of the United States, an entomological researcher, a crime fiction writer in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, a pair of survivalists who’ve gone underground in Desperation, California, and more, if you can believe it.
The plot progresses quickly as strange swarms are spotted all over the globe, swarms of some sort of ancient, predatory insect that no one can quite identify. Anyone who has been close enough to identify this insect has not been heard from again, if you catch my drift.
That old horror that our ancestors instilled in us, that fear of things that have too many legs and skulk in corners and are potentially venomous is definitely alive and kicking here, and if you think it’s old hat because you’ve seen Arachnophobia, think again. That was nothing compared to this global phenomenon.
With this giant cast of characters—halfway through the book, new characters are still being introduced for the first time—this book goes all over the world to show how people are dealing with this crisis. And spreading it around.
That’s where the new horror kicks in—with our globalization and modernization, we make it much easier for these things to move across the globe and find new victims. Boone almost goes out of his way to show the reader how our modern world only works against us: videos of this black, consuming blob terrorize the world but don’t really give any new information. Nations that aren’t willing to share information impede and even spread along the infectious wave.
If I learned anything from this book, it’s that the only thing that will save you is isolation.
Boone is ruthless to his characters, leaving no room for error and creating an apocalyptic spread that I would honestly love to see as a movie or miniseries.
The second book should be a direct continuation, but it will be more like a post-apocalyptic book, or the second wave of the apocalypse, while this one shows the world as we know it descending into chaos and agony.
A few of the characters in this book were solely set up to take center stage in the next book, so we’ll see where the story takes them in about 7 months!
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If there’s something Jonathan Lethem can do, it’s come up with plots no one else has thought of. His plots are even wilder than stuff you’ve dreamed up and then forgot, but had that lingering notion of in the back of your mind when you wake up in the morning. Yeah, try and figure that one out.
Man, I bet he has the best elevator pitches, though.
So, my book is about a girl who leaves her boyfriend not for another guy, but for a black hole that she created in a lab.
Ok, this one is like 1984 meets Brave New World meets Animal Farm meets The Maltese Falcon, no? It’s a noir sci-fi thriller with talking animals, what’s not to like?
This new one is a doozy: an international backgammon hustler who may or may not be psychic starts going blind from a blot in the center of his vision.
Oh, yeah. He went there.
While backgammoning (is that a word? Aside: I only learned to play backgammon this past weekend, thanks to my lovely and talented mother, as research for this book. It is actually a pretty fun game, and any knowledge you have of it will definitely help you as you read certain sections!) abroad in Singapore, Alexander Bruno meets an old childhood friend, Stolarsky, who has mysteriously become a real estate mogul in their hometown of Berkeley.
After their encounter, things go awry for Alexander in Berlin, when he passes out during a game with a client. He wakes up in the hospital and his situation is serious. The “blot” that has been growing to occlude his vision is actually a tumor behind his nose and eyes and it is inoperable, at least for the German doctors.
Blot is used as an interesting double entendre, as this is also a backgammon term for a checker left alone on a point and therefore vulnerable to being hit.
But there is a guy, a crazy hippy doctor in California (of all places), who specializes in such tumor removal. Perhaps Alexander could return stateside? Penniless, he has no one to call except Stolarsky, who promptly books him a ticket home.
From the beginning, an anti-hero like Alexander is, of course, destined to return to his hometown to confront the reason why he left there, his old friend (however indirectly), his general issues with social life, himself, and of course, his tumor. He should probably get that looked at.
In true Lethem fashion, all that is not really what this book is about, though. Which is not to say that it isn’t important, or that it doesn’t play in metaphorically, thematically, or otherwise.
In backgammon, the board always starts out with the same placement, but the checkers can end up in wildly different positions all depending on the roll of the dice. It’s random chance, but it’s also how you decide to use your chance. What moves are available to you on the board and what strategy you are using. And one single roll can alter the luck of the entire board!
Really, it’s all a big metaphor for life and in this book, Alexander’s life has just turned into one losing game of backgammon after another.
The book also centers heavily around identity and what we consider identity. Our faces—now discoverable by technology like Facebook and potentially the Amazon bookstores—form such a large part of our identity that we can hardly ignore them.
But what happens when we take that away? When we become anonymous or our face no longer looks the same due to disfigurement, surgery, or injury?
In Alexander’s case, he takes on a new identity where the surgical mask he acquires later in the book not only becomes his new face (and his way to literally not face the world) but a viral sensation as a masked burger slinger and later as a political statement and symbol of anarchy. But who is Alexander, really?
When I think of influential masks, I think of Michael Myers, Jason, Guy Fawkes, Darth Vader, Ghost Face, Batman, and the Phantom of the Opera. (That last one might be left over from my musical theater training, but still, it’s pretty iconic.) Instantly recognizable, yet still we don’t know who is really behind the mask.
Masks confuse, intrigue, and repel us in equal measure. It is something that is of us but not enough like us to be one of us. They are really only acceptable on Halloween, otherwise we are a bit suspicious.
For the wearer, I see the appeal if you wish to hide your face, but it is a catch-22. No one can see your true identity, but you draw so much more attention to yourself by appearing too different from everyone else.
In a way, A Gambler’s Anatomy is like a post–coming-of-age novel, where the protagonist has not come-of-age but rather stayed in stasis and now a life-changing event is finally making him confront everything he tried to keep hidden away. Everything’s going to come out in the end.
There’s more to say, (you remember I said he thought he could read minds, right?) but there’s enough floating around here to get you started. Lethem understands what makes a story interesting and excels at the craft. You can’t go wrong picking this up or any of his earlier books for that matter.
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Find out more about the author, Jonathan Lethem
Find out more about the publisher, Doubleday (Penguin Random House)
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Just look at this cover. This is it, a design that really gets a book, and not only that, but it is totally and completely captivating. The moment I saw this, I knew I had to have it, without knowing at all what it contained.
The fact that it’s engaging, cinematic (what else would you expect from the Wayward Pines creator?), mind-blowingly brilliant, layered, and still character-driven through all its action/sci-fi/thriller/horror blending just makes this perfect cover the icing on the cake.
I was reading Dark Matter last month, just after the Netflix Original Series Stranger Things craze was really gaining steam and media attention. If you haven’t dug into this eight-part series yet, drop everything, take a deep breath, and turn on Netflix. You can thank me in about eight hours.
It was almost impossible for me to not see similarities between the two narratives, to not think about them in tandem. There is something about alternate realities, worlds just beyond ours that echo ours in sinister ways, that the collective “we” of the American public (or the world?) find really captivating right now.
Trying to pin it down, I found myself thinking a lot about the alternate worlds that already exist within our world: the internet, social media, and all the multitudes of self that so easily replicate out of that. Now that we all carry around our smart phones, those worlds exist literally at our fingertips and at times, it seems like we immerse ourselves in them more frequently than we engage with the real, tangible world around us.
Every single moment is documentable, making it a recorded piece of online identity, one that is potentially viewable by anyone: friends, strangers, people in different countries who don’t speak our language or know our culture. But is that who we really are?
Or is it just the persona that we want to be, so we create and mold this online presence to our liking?
Or is it something completely separate from us, but something that just looks like us?
Or maybe it’s pieces of all of that?
Not that there’s anything wrong with the way technology has developed or with having ways to release creativity online through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, blogging, and the like—you are probably only reading this now because you found it on some social media site (and I thank you!)—but there is a bit of pervasiveness and even invasiveness that goes along with this brave new world, most of which we don’t stop to think about on a daily basis. And it can get dark—not all people are using their anonymity innocently.
Dark Matter, and Stranger Things too, consider (and prey on, because what fun is horror if you aren’t a bit scared!?) what it means to actually inhabit these other realms that lie beside our reality. But while Stranger Things is undeniably set in a very specific time period, one that precludes smart phones and check-ins and selfies, Dark Matter is very much of our time.
Sorry to be a bit cryptic concerning what this book is actually about, but honestly, it will be better if you head in a bit blind. For the short version, there’s a smart guy who chose family over career and winds up with a beautiful wife and son and a job as a teacher, even though he probably could have changed the world with his research on particle physics.
One evening, he is kidnapped, drugged, and forced inside a box. When he wakes up, he has no idea where he is, but everyone there acts like they know him. He wants to go home, but it’s not the wife he knows, and his son doesn’t seem to exist. What is going on? Who was the mysterious stranger who forced him to come here? And how can he get back to his family and his life?
This book is about defining moments and looking back at those moments where our lives branched one direction and saying, “What if? What if I’d taken the other path?” Those What Ifs are multi-faceted and easily spiral out of control, cracks on a windshield, and we can’t take them back.
But this book imagines the splintered realities as living on, moving away from us as we move away from them, imagined, dreamed, real, not real, every iteration of infinite possibilities pulsating just on the other side of our plane of existence.
What if we had access to those other planes? And what effect would our access have? This book takes the idea of the butterfly effect and interdimensional travel to greater extremes than I had ever previously imagined—it gets CRAZY.
Dark Matter at its heart is also very much about fulfillment and what that means. Having great ambition and curing cancer might bring you fame and accolades, but have you potentially wasted your time if you come home to an empty house each night, if you have no one to share your life with? Is personal fulfillment and leaving a legacy through having children, and being able to actually raise those children, more important?
I was so impressed how this sci-fi–thriller managed to be so character driven and really centered on such personal themes, digging into the main character’s head, while at the same time having a lot of external action scenes. Crouch has a very deft hand for encapsulating the internal world of his character’s and the external world that surrounds them and in a book like this, where boundaries are shifting and unclear, that attention and preciseness is appreciated.
More than anything, this is just a great story. It leaves you thinking, and that’s what a really excellent book should do—not leave you alone. And maybe you’ll think about the multiple iterations you’ve left out in cyberspace, and look at the world around you a little differently when you’re finished.
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This multi-faceted story is all about uncovering, secrets, and what we'll do to keep ours covered while digging other peoples' up.
While ninety-year-old Margaret is happy to live in seclusion, when a neighbor moves in across the lake, she begins to develop an unhealthy obsession with the woman and her small boy—Margaret is just sure Jennifer is hiding something and she's bound and determined to figure out what it is.
The narrative switches between the perspectives of Margaret and Jennifer and they are actually pretty similar characters from the outset. While it is apparent from the beginning that Jennifer is running from somewhere, she seems a bit traumatized and is definitely reluctant to let anyone into her and her young son Milo's lives.
Similarly, Margaret is a recalcitrant old woman who makes it clear she doesn't need anyone for anything. She doesn't really have any family left and her only friend seems to be the librarian who picks out her crime fiction novels every other week, but even that relationship is a bit one-sided.
So what is it about this new neighbor that so intrigues Margaret? It might be the influence of all those books that gets her to begin snooping about her wary neighbor, but once their relationship opens up, Margaret seems to be the one spilling all her secrets rather than finding them all out.
The old woman's past reminiscences as a nurse in World War II is interesting and well-researched, but to me it always felt like a slightly misplaced side-plot, especially since I thought her secret—a twist revealed late in the book—was fairly obvious from the beginning.
More interesting and relevant is Jennifer's interaction with her new friend, Megan, who she meets through the preschool that her son attends. As we find out more and more about Jennifer's past, why Milo's dad isn't around, and what dark things may have happened to their family, we also see Megan's problems with her husband.
Seeing the instability of Megan's relationship with her husband Sebastian throws into sharp relief what Jennifer's own situation must have looked like on the outside. And all the shades of gray that are involved are pretty intricate!
What happened to Jennifer isn't a clear-cut case that made me definitively say one way or the other who was in the right or in the wrong. And that is why tying the old narrative to Megan's current day story was so interesting—it was even easier to see both sides of the argument in the case of Megan and her husband, as both of those characters are active in the book and have a say in creating their characters.
Not so for Tommy, Jennifer's husband. But you'll have to read the book to find out what happened to their relationship and what she is running from. Then you can decide for yourself. But I'll warn you, Jennifer isn't as simple and quiet as she appears to be.
This book did an excellent job of revealing all the layers that can be within a person. Like a murky pond, there can be so much movement and color shifting and changing below the surface, but the top of the water will barely show a ripple. People are just the same.
This book is a quiet, slow-burning, thoughtful, contained sort of thriller, but there are definitely surprises that you won't see coming and questions that will be left unanswered, which is true to life and often so much more interesting than an ending with a neatly tied bow.
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Find out more about the author, Leah Stewart
Find out more about the publisher, Touchstone (Simon & Schuster)
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A haunted hotel in the highlands of Scotland? Sign me up! But seriously, if you know of any, I'd like to know about them for real and I will be on the next flight out! Not that I'm looking for an excuse to go to Scotland or anything. . .
The Ballador Country House Hotel is such a great setting, I felt that it almost had to be based on something real, or at least some really great stories of a real place. Some spooky castle somewhere, shrouded in mystery, perhaps?
In any case, people go to the Ballador because they want to be scared, they want to experience nightmares. In fact, it is guaranteed depending on which room you are staying in.
But for the recent widower Victor, the dreams are nightmarishly real and the spirits of the Ballador seem to be targeting him specifically. Victor comes to the hotel because his wife made him a reservation, right before she brutally killed herself with a handgun.
His right-hand man Harry doesn't feel quite right about the situation and begins digging into the hotel's past while Victor becomes ensconced in a nightmare world that blurs the lines between good and evil, right and wrong.
This quick but fully engaging read held my interest from start to finish. I was pleased with the dialogue and the overall voice of the book, which is consistent and well-developed. Though it could use another round of proofreading for technical errors and US/UK standardization, the story is solid and I fell into the narrative quite easily.
There are definitely some Lovecraftian influences here, especially towards the end when the walls between our world and the nightmare world collapse, letting a sort of hell realm expand out into the Ballador.
Dreams can be a tricky concept to maneuver and I think McNee has done a great job navigating readers through scenes of mixed reality. I never felt confused about what was physically occurring versus what might only be happening inside Victor's mind—and that's quite a task especially as that wall turns into a fluid curtain and then disappears entirely.
This book also has an interesting underlying commentary on what ghosts are and how they haunt us. For most guests of the hotel—the amateur ghosthunters or thrill-seekers—the nightmares were brought to them by actual spirits, as in, the nightmares are visions of actual hauntings. Some guests even seem to collect these nightmares like some kind of masochistic trading cards.
This is a bit different from what we normally think of as ghosts, which are apparitions we see, sense, or otherwise get scared by while fully awake. At the Ballador, you have to be asleep for the ghosts to get you.
This difference in the state of the psyche is important to the book, because it is ruminating on how our unconscious mind rules us and what goes on within our mind when we aren't fully there. What do our unconscious thoughts, dreams, and nightmares say about us? What do we remember of what happens when we shut our eyes? What do we not remember? And what might linger on?
Most importantly, this horror novel is a rollicking good time. It has great descriptions, sometimes overly descriptive in that great pulpy way—not over-doing it or anything, but giving you all the gory details, for sure. It's a fun read with plenty of surprises and I can't guarantee you sweet dreams at the finish.
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Find out more about the author, John McNee
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Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.