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2018 Governor General's Literary Awards Finalists

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The Canada Council for the Arts celebrates great books: our Governor General’s Literary Awards recognize finalists and winners in seven categories for both official languages and for readers of all ages.
Beirut Hellfire Society

Beirut Hellfire Society

edition:Hardcover

LONGLISTED FOR THE SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE
SHORTLISTED FOR THE ROGERS WRITERS' TRUST FICTION PRIZE
A FINALIST FOR THE GOVERNOR GENERAL'S LITERARY AWARD
An explosive new novel from the award-winning, bestselling author of De Niro's Game and Cockroach, and only the second Canadian (after Alistair Macleod) to win the prestigious Dublin IMPAC Literary Award.

It is 1978 in Beirut, Lebanon, partway through that country's Civil War. On a torn-up street overlooking a cemetery in the city's Christian enc …

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One sunny day at the start of a ceasefire, a father drove with his son down towards where the fighting had been.

A cadaver had been lying on the ground for days, muti­lated. The son, who was named Pavlov, and his father, an undertaker, loaded the remains into plastic bags and carried them to the hearse. The cadaver’s belly had been opened by a bullet wound and vermin had claimed it and multiplied inside the soft organs, gorging on the entrails. Father and son gathered the scattered items that belonged to the dead: a loose shoe, a bag filled with mouldy food, broken glasses.

Now, the man told his son, you’re sixteen—old enough to become a member of the Society. The Hellfire Society, the father added. He switched on the car radio, and drove towards the coast and then up into the mountains of Lebanon.

They arrived at a secluded area in the high summit, and finally at a small stone house that looked to be abandoned. But the father picked up a key from under a potted plant, opened the door, and together he and his son entered. The house was simple and humble, cold and damp. Neglect and dust could be seen everywhere. The floor was bare, and through the soles of their shoes father and son felt the touch of leather against grains of dirt and sand. Walking across the room was slippery but manageable—two pairs of feet grinding little particles into the floor. The walls of the house were peeling, expos­ing straw mixed with clay, an ancient technique for efficient insulation that the villagers had used for centuries. There was a bed in the corner of the main room and, in the middle, a stove with a chimney that extended its charcoal tube towards the ceiling before the cylinder shifted at the end, a perfect ninety degrees, to reach the top of the adjacent wall and cough out its smoke.

Welcome to the Society’s mansion, the father said.

Pavlov followed his father into the second room. This was a later addition to the house, separate from the main area. Its cement floor was bare and unpolished and the room’s main feature was a large metal door in the centre of the back wall, with a smaller door beneath the large one. Beside the doors, two large gas tanks were linked by tubes. To Pavlov’s eye, they resembled the garden hoses often seen trailing like ser­pents around villagers’ houses.

Eventually we may have to change the pipes, his father said. It’s a simple procedure. You make sure to cut off the gas from its source there—he pointed at a handle embedded in the wall—and before you proceed, lock it firm. Look here, son. You twist this knob on the top in a counter-clockwise motion. Are you cold, son?

Pavlov nodded.

In no time this house will burn like hell, his father replied, and smiled. But let’s eat first, and then we’ll bring our unknown soul into the abode of fire, light and eternal warmth.

They washed their hands with cracked bars of soap under cold water, then roasted chestnuts, heated bread, set out thyme and olive oil and cheese that the father removed from a jar, and drank alcohol. When they were done, they brought the body inside, laid it on a wooden stretcher that the father had made himself and carried the cadaver to the second room. The father opened the metal door and Pavlov saw what looked like a deep, long oven.

The father turned to the cadaver, and with a singing, wailing voice he uttered these words: They say ashes to ashes, but we say fire begets fire. May your fire join the grand lumi­nosity of the ultimate fire, may your anonymity add to the greatness of the hidden, the truthful and the unknown. You, the father continued, were trapped, lost, ignored, dejected, but now you are found, and we release you back into your origi­nal abode. Happy are those rejected by the burial lots of the ignorant. The earth is winter and summer, spring and fall . . . We heard your call and we came.

Father and son lifted the bed off the stretcher and slid the cadaver into the stove. The father twisted the knobs of the gas tanks—bonbons he called them—struck a match and lit a fire inside. Then he asked his son to close the furnace door.

In time, the house became warm. It stood alone in its surroundings, a ball of heat against the chill of the mountains. Pavlov, bewildered by the rituals, sat in silence and listened as his father talked and drank and sang incomprehensible songs that had the rhythms of hymns. Then his father, drunk and tired, stumbled into bed and fell asleep.

Pavlov stayed awake and gazed at the wooden stove, watch­ing the glow of a few persistent coals coating themselves in grey dust on the outside, burning red and orange at the core. Heat percolated from the second room, so strong it made Pavlov loosen his wool coat and remove his socks and extend his toes. He studied the downcast moustache drawing a line around his father’s open mouth below a triangular Byzantine nose, long and curved, and thin at its tip. Pavlov wondered about the singing, and about the burning of stray corpses, unclaimed and bloated, about orphaned cadavers and their capacity for music and dance long lost. My father has done this before, alone. What strength, Pavlov thought, what willpower must have been required to lift the heavy bodies and load them into the car. Pavlov examined his father’s shoulders, strong from digging the earth and carrying hardened, blue bodies; and his father’s fingers, infiltrated by dust beneath the nails. From the balcony at home, Pavlov had often seen his father digging, and waving to him when he straightened to stretch his back, and drinking water from the bottle at his side. Tonight’s long, esoteric monologue and affectionate words made Pavlov wonder if his father was addressing him or some other distant son, or if he was simply filled with life and liquor. The incoherent speeches about death, ephemerality, the Iliad’s fallen heroes, and quotes from various saints and philosophers from Heraclitus to Ephrem the Syrian; the disquisitions on ancient burials, fire, and epics from antiquity; and the disdain for the earth, the body . . . it all made Pavlov wonder if his father might be a madman, a deranged heathen. All these years, he had thought his father’s criticism of the clergy was because the priests meddled in matters of burial grounds and money. Now he realized that his father disliked earthly burials on principle. He preferred fire.

And then his father woke, and liberating the words inside him, told his son that he dearly wished he could have burned his wife, Pavlov’s mother, when she had died a few months past—but she had insisted on being buried in the ground, and he had respected her wish. As for myself, the father said, you, my son, will bring me fire.

Pavlov looked at his father again and saw a gentle, eccen­tric man, and he pitied him and loved him all the more.
 
 
At dawn, the father woke the son, gathered ashes from the furnace, mixed them with water, and pasted them all over his face and hands.

Pavlov brushed his teeth and washed his face, and went to stand outside beside his father. He was both embarrassed and filled with wonder. It was cold that morning—the cold of soldiers marching towards battle, stomping across farmers’ fields, cold in the way vengeful villagers steal dead soldiers’ shoes after defeat in battle, cold like that rosy dawn in which the wounded trip over vegetables, roots and dead branches, bruised, shot, stabbed and hallucinating of a wedding with a farmer’s girl who will lead them towards their warrior heaven. Pavlov looked at the vast empty mountains while his father chanted. Then his father kissed Pavlov on the forehead, took his hand and led him in another dance, singing in a foreign language. Pavlov danced and smiled, bewildered but surren­dering to his father’s wishes and following his steps.

Afterwards, he helped gather the ashes from the crema­torium and fold them in a cloth. The two of them walked along a narrow path, through bushes and between tall, pre­historic rocks until they reached a cliff that looked out onto a steep valley. The view was sublime and the wind passed over them, just as it had passed over the succession of round green hills and into the valley. Pavlov’s father flipped the cloth open, and the ashes were taken by the wind and the dust scattered in one direction. The northern wind, his father said, leads south, and the easterly wind leads west and carries with it the scent of time.

Inside the house, his father washed his hands and face, dried them with a cloth, fed the cloth into the stove in the middle of the room and let it burn.

Then father and son drove back to the city of Beirut, once more they drove, in silence under the falling bombs. The war had resumed.

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Jonny Appleseed

Jonny Appleseed

edition:Paperback

Finalist, Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction

Longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize

A tour-de-force debut novel about a Two-Spirit Indigiqueer young man and proud NDN glitter princess who must reckon with his past when he returns home to his reserve.

"You're gonna need a rock and a whole lotta medicine" is a mantra that Jonny Appleseed, a young Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer, repeats to himself in this vivid and utterly compelling debut novel by poet Joshua Whitehead.

Off the reserve and tryi …

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The Red Word

The Red Word

A Novel
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
tagged : literary

The battle of the sexes goes to college in this nervy debut adult novel by a powerful new voice

A smart, dark, and take-no-prisoners look at rape culture and the extremes to which ideology can go The Red Word is a campus novel like no other. As her sophomore year begins, Karen enters into the back-to-school revelry — particularly at Gamma Beta Chi. When she wakes up one morning on the lawn of Raghurst, a house of radical feminists, she gets a crash course in the state of feminist activism on ca …

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Women Talking

Women Talking

A Novel
edition:Hardcover

A FINALIST FOR THE GOVERNOR GENERAL'S LITERARY AWARD: A transformative and necessary work--as completely unexpected as it is inspired--by the award-winning author of the bestselling novels All My Puny Sorrows and A Complicated Kindness.

The sun rises on a quiet June morning in 2009. August Epp sits alone in the hayloft of a barn, anxiously bent over his notebook. He writes quickly, aware that his solitude will soon be broken. Eight women--ordinary grandmothers, mothers and teenagers; yet to Augus …

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Excerpt

 
The meetings have been organized hastily by Agata Friesen and Greta Loewen in response to the strange attacks that have haunted the women of Molotschna for the past sev­eral years. Since 2005, nearly every girl and woman has been raped by what many in the colony believed to be ghosts, or Satan, supposedly as punishment for their sins. The attacks occurred at night. As their families slept, the girls and women were made unconscious with a spray of the anesthetic used on our farm animals, made from the belladonna plant. The next morning, they would wake up in pain, groggy and often bleeding, and not understand why. Recently, the eight demons responsible for the attacks turned out to be real men from Molotschna, many of whom are the close relatives—brothers, cousins, uncles, nephews—of the women.

I recognized one of the men, barely. He and I had played together when we were children. He knew the names of all the planets, or he made them up anyway. His nickname for me was Froag, which in our language meant “question.” I remember that I had wanted to say goodbye to this boy before I left the colony with my parents, but my mother told me that he was having difficulty with his twelve-year-old molars, and had contracted an infection and was confined to his bedroom. I’m not sure, now, if that was true. In any case, neither this boy nor anybody from the colony said goodbye before we left.

The other perpetrators are much younger than me and hadn’t been born, or were babies or toddlers, when I left with my parents, and I have no recollection of them.

Molotschna, like all our colonies, is self-policed. Initially Peters planned to lock the men in a shed (similar to the one I live in) for several decades, but it soon became apparent that the men’s lives were in danger. Ona’s younger sister, Salome, attacked one of the men with a scythe; and another man was hanged by a group of drunk and angry colonists, male relatives of the victims, from a tree branch by his hands. He died there, forgotten apparently, when the drunk and angry men passed out in the sorghum field next to the tree. After this, Peters, together with the elders, decided to call in the police and have the men arrested— for their own safety, presumably—and taken to the city.

The remaining men of the colony (except for the senile or decrepit, and myself, for humiliating reasons) have gone to the city to post bail for the imprisoned attackers in the hope that they will be able to return to Molotschna while they await trial. And when the perpe­trators return, the women of Molotschna will be given the opportunity to forgive these men, thus guaranteeing everyone’s place in heaven. If the women don’t forgive the men, says Peters, the women will have to leave the colony for the outside world, of which they know noth­ing. The women have very little time, only two days, to organize their response.

Yesterday, as I have been told by Ona, the women of Molotschna voted. There were three options on the ballot.

1. Do Nothing.
2. Stay and Fight.
3. Leave.

Each option was accompanied by an illustration of its meaning, because the women do not read. (Note: It’s not my intention to constantly point out that the women do not read—only when it’s necessary to explain certain actions.)

Neitje Friesen, age sixteen, daughter of the late Mina Friesen and now permanent ward of her aunt Salome Friesen (Neitje’s father, Balthasar, was sent by Peters to the remote southwest corner of the country some years ago to purchase twelve yearlings and still has not returned), created the illustrations:

“Do Nothing” was accompanied by an empty hori­zon. (Although I think, but did not say, that this could be used to illustrate the option of leaving as well.)

“Stay and Fight” was accompanied by a drawing of two colony members engaged in a bloody knife duel. (Deemed too violent by the others, but the meaning is clear.)

And the option of “Leave” was accompanied by a draw­ing of the rear end of a horse. (Again I thought, but did not say, that this implies the women are watching others leave.)

The vote was a deadlock between numbers two and three, bloody knife duel and back of horse. The Friesen women, predominantly, want to stay and fight. The Loewens prefer to leave, although evidence of shifting convictions exists in both camps.

There are also some women in Molotschna who voted to do nothing, to leave things in the hands of the Lord, but they will not be in attendance today. The most vocal of the Do Nothing women is Scarface Janz, a stalwart member of the colony, the resident bonesetter, and also a woman known for having an excellent eye for measuring distances. She once explained to me that, as a Molotschnan, she had everything she wanted; all she had to do was con­vince herself that she wanted very little.

Ona has informed me that Salome Friesen, a formi­dable iconoclast, had indicated in yesterday’s meeting that “Do Nothing” was in reality not an option, but that allowing women to vote for “Do Nothing” would at least be empowering. Mejal (meaning “girl” in Plautdietsch) Loewen, a friendly chain-smoker with two yellow finger­tips and what I suspect must be a secret life, had agreed. But, Ona told me, Mejal also pointed out that Salome Friesen had not been anointed as the person who can declare what constitutes reality or what the options are. The other Loewen women had apparently nodded their heads at this while the Friesen women had expressed impatience with quick, dismissive gestures. This type of minor conflict well illustrates the timbre of the debate between the two groups, the Friesens and the Loewens. However, because time is short and the need for a decision urgent, the women of Molotschna have agreed collectively to allow these two families to debate the pros and cons of each option—excluding the Do Nothing option, which most of the women in the colony dismiss as “dummheit”— and to decide which is suitable, and finally to choose how best to implement that option.

A translation note: The women are speaking in Plautdietsch, or Low German, the only language they know, and the language spoken by all members of the Molotschna Colony—although the boys of Molotschna are now taught rudimentary English in school, and the men also speak some Spanish. Plautdietsch is an unwritten medieval language, moribund, a mishmash of German, Dutch, Pomeranian and Frisian. Very few people in the world speak Plautdietsch, and everyone who does is Mennonite. I mention this to explain that before I can transcribe the minutes of the meetings I must translate (quickly, in my mind) what the women are saying into English, so that it may be written down.

And one more note, again irrelevant to the women’s debate, but necessary to explain in this document why I am able to read, write and understand English: I learned English in England, where my parents went to live after being excommunicated by the bishop of Molotschna at the time, Peters Senior, father of Peters, the current bishop of Molotschna.

While in my fourth year of university there, I suffered a nervous breakdown (Narfa) and became involved in cer­tain political activities for which I was eventually expelled and imprisoned for a period of time. During my imprison­ment, my mother died. My father had disappeared years before. I have no siblings because my mother’s uterus was removed following my birth. In short, I had no one and nothing in England, although I had managed, while serving time in prison, to complete my teaching degree through correspondence. In dire straits, homeless and half-mad—or fully mad—I made a decision to commit suicide.

While researching my various options at the public library nearest the park in which I made my home, I fell asleep. I slept for an extraordinarily long time and was eventually gently nudged by the librarian, who told me it was time for me to leave, the library was closing. Then the librarian, an older woman, noticed that I had been crying and that I appeared dishevelled and distraught. She asked me what was wrong. I told her the truth: I didn’t want to live anymore. She offered to buy me supper, and while we were dining at the small restaurant across the street from the library, she asked me where I had come from, what part of the world?

I replied that I came from a part of the world that had been established to be its own world, apart from the world. In a sense, I told her, my people (I remember drawing out the words “my people” ironically, and then immediately feeling ashamed and silently asking to be forgiven) don’t exist, or at least are supposed to be seen not to.

And perhaps it doesn’t take too long before you believe that you really don’t exist, she said. Or that your actual corporeal existence is a perversity.

I wasn’t sure what she meant and scratched my head furiously, like a dog with ticks.
And after that? she asked.

University, briefly, and then prison, I told her.

Ah, she said, perhaps the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

I smiled stupidly. My foray into the world resulted in my removal from the world, I said.

Almost as though you were brought into existence not to exist, she said, laughing.

Singled out to conform. Yes, I said, trying to laugh with her. Born not to be.

I imagined my squalling infant self being removed from my mother’s womb and then the womb itself hastily yanked away from her and thrown out a window to pre­vent any other abominations from occurring—this birth, this boy, his nakedness, her shame, his shame, their shame.

I told the librarian that it was difficult to explain where I was from.

I met a traveller from an antique land, said the librar­ian, apparently quoting a poet she knew and loved.

Again I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I nodded. I explained that I was originally a Mennonite from the Molotschna Colony, and that when I was twelve years old my parents were excommunicated and we moved away, to England. Nobody said goodbye to us, I told the librarian (I live forever with the shame of having said such a piteous thing). For years I believed we were forced to leave Molotschna because I had been caught stealing pears from a farm in the neighbouring colony of Chortiza. In England, where I learned how to read and write, I spelled my name with rocks in a large green field so that God would find me quickly and my punishment would be complete. I also tried to spell the word “confession” with rocks from our garden fence but my mother, Monica, had noticed that the stone wall between our garden and the neighbours’ was disappearing. One day she followed me to my green field, along the narrow rut that the wheelbarrow had made in the dirt, and caught me in the act of surrendering myself to God, using the stones from the fence to signal my location, with huge letters. She sat me down on the ground and put her arms around me, and said nothing. After a while, she told me that the fence had to be put back. I asked if I could put the stones back after God had found me and punished me. I was so exhausted from anticipating punishment and I wanted to get it over with. She asked me what I thought God intended to punish me for, and I told her about the pears, and about my thoughts regarding girls, about my draw­ings, and my desire to win in sports and be strong. How I was vain and competitive and lustful. My mother laughed then, and hugged me again and apologized for laughing. She said that I was a normal boy, I was a child of God—a loving God, in spite of what anybody said—but that the neighbours were perturbed about the disappearing fence and I would have to return the stones.

All this I told to the librarian.

She responded that she could understand why my mother had said what she did, but that if she had been there, if she had been my mother, she would have said something else. She would have told me that I wasn’t normal—that I was innocent, yes, but that I had an unusually deep need to be forgiven, even though I had done nothing wrong. Most of us, she said, absolve our­selves of responsibility for change by sentimentalizing our pasts. And then we live freely, happily, or if not altogether happily, without tremendous anguish. The librarian laughed. She said that if she had been in that green field with me, she would have helped me to have that feeling of somehow being forgiven.

Forgiven for what, though, exactly? I asked her. Stealing pears, drawing pictures of naked girls?

No, no, said the librarian, forgiven for being alive, for being in the world. For the arrogance and the futility of remaining alive, the ridiculousness of it, the stench of it, the unreasonableness of it. That’s your feeling, she added, your internal logic. You’ve just explained that to me.

She went on to say that, in her opinion, doubt and uncertainty and questioning are inextricably bound together with faith. A rich existence, she said, a way of being in the world, wouldn’t you say?

I smiled. I scratched. The world, I said.

What do you remember of Molotschna?

Ona, I said. Ona Friesen.

And I began to tell her about Ona Friesen, a girl my age, the same woman who has now asked me to record the minutes of the meeting.

After a long conversation with the librarian, during which I talked mostly, though not entirely, about Ona— how we had played, how we had clocked the seasons by the tiny lengthening of light, how we had pretended to be rebellious disciples at first misunderstood by our leader, Jesus, and then posthumously hailed as heroes, how we had jousted on horses with fence posts (running full tilt, like knights, like Ona’s squirrel and rabbit), how we had kissed, how we’d fought—the librarian suggested that I return to Molotschna, to the place where life had made sense to me, even briefly, even in imaginary play in dying sunlight, and that I ask the bishop (Peters, the younger, who was the same age as my mother) to accept me into the colony as a member. (I did not tell the librarian that this would also mean asking Peters to forgive me the sins of my parents, sins pertaining to the storage of intellec­tual materials and to the dissemination and propagation of said materials, even though the materials were art books, photographs of paintings that my father had found in the garbage behind a school in the city, and even though he was guilty only of sharing the images with other colony members, as he was unable to read the text.) She also suggested that I offer to teach the Molotschnan boys English, a language they would need in order to conduct business outside the colony. And she said that I should become friends, once again, with Ona Friesen.

I had nothing to lose. I took this advice to heart.

The librarian asked her husband to give me a job driv­ing for his airport limousine service, and although I didn’t have a valid driver’s licence, I worked for him for three months to make enough money to purchase a ticket to Molotschna. During this time, I slept in the attic of a youth hostel. At night, when it felt as though my head was about to explode, I would will myself to lie as still as possible. Every night, in that hostel, as I lay motionless in my bed, I closed my eyes and heard very faint strains of piano music, heavy chords unaccompanied by voices. One morning I asked the man who cleaned the hostel, and who also slept there, if he had ever heard faint piano music with heavy chords at night. He said no, never. Eventually, I understood that the song I heard at night, when it felt as though my head was about to explode, was the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” and that I was lis­tening to my own funeral.

Peters, who wears the same tall black boots his own father once wore, or at least similar ones, considered my request for re-admittance into the colony. He finally said he would allow me membership providing I renounced my parents (in spite of one being dead and the other miss­ing) before the elders and was baptized into the church and agreed to teach the boys basic English and simple math in return for shelter (the aforementioned shed) and three meals a day.

I told Peters I would be baptized and I would teach the boys, but that I wouldn’t renounce my parents. Peters, unhappy, but desperate to have the boys learn account­ing, or perhaps because my appearance unsettled him, as I looked so much like my father, agreed.

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Zolitude

Zolitude

edition:Paperback

LONGLISTED FOR THE 2018 SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE

FINALIST FOR THE 2018 GOVERNOR GENERAL'S LITERARY AWARD FOR FICTION

Fantastical, magnetic, and harsh—these are the women in Paige Cooper’s debut short story collection Zolitude. They are women who built time machines when they were nine, who buy plane tickets for lovers who won’t arrive. They are sisters writhing with dreams, blasé about sex but beggared by love—while the police horses have talons and vengeance is wrought by eagles the size …

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Night Became Years

Night Became Years

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

Poems about alchemy, love, Protestant witch judges, Indigenous identity, the cultural abutments of the inner city, football taunts, border ballads, and half­breed wailing. Night Became Years is poetry in the sauntering tradition of the flâneur. Stefanik loafers his way over sacred geography and explores his own mixed heritage through the lexicon of Elizabethan canting language. Comparing the terminology of fifteenth­century English beggar vernacular with a contemporary Canadian inner­city wo …

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The Blue Clerk

The Blue Clerk

Ars Poetica in 59 Versos
edition:Hardcover

Dionne Brand, author of the Griffin Poetry Prize-winning collection Ossuaries, returns with a startlingly original work about the act of writing itself.

On a lonely wharf a clerk in an ink blue coat inspects bales and bales of paper that hold a poet's accumulated left-hand pages--the unwritten, the withheld, the unexpressed, the withdrawn, the restrained. In The Blue Clerk award-winning poet Dionne Brand stages a conversation and an argument between the poet and the Blue Clerk, who is the keeper …

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This Wound is a World

This Wound is a World

edition:Paperback
tagged : gay & lesbian

This Wound is a World slip-slides between poetry and essay to get at the shaky tempos of Indigenous life in a world bent on destroying it. It zeroes in on the world-shaking force of sex and love – when ‘we disappear into each other’ – to figure out how we are able to shoulder sadness like ours and still get through the day. Queer in form and content, This Wound is a World slows down the turbulent colonial present to scavenge for something of an exit route.

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