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VINE VOICEon 1 May 2006
Iain Banks first novel, The Wasp Factory, was published in 1984. In the years since, he's won critical acclaim, topped best-seller lists and has even written Science Fiction books under the cunning nom-de-plume 'Iain M. Banks'. He's also seen this book, "The Crow Road", adapted for television by the BBC in 1996. "Canal Dreams" is his fifth non sci-fi book and was first published in 1989.

The book's central character is Hisako Onoda, a world-famous cellist. As the book opens, Hisako is en-route from Japan to Europe, where she's due to perform in a series of concerts. However, as she's terrified of flying, she's making the journey by boat. Having travelled to Honolulu on the Gassam Maru, she then boarded the Nakodo - which was due to take her to Rotterdam via the Panama Canal. Unfortunately, due to `civil unrest' in the region - armed conflict between guerrilla fighters and government forces - the canal has been closed. Fro the moment, the Nakodo and two other ships are essentially trapped on Gat�n Lake. Although they are hoping for the all-clear to continue their journey soon, the conflict I, unfortunately, coming closer.

There are elements of a thriller to "Canal Dreams", but the strength of the book lies in telling Hisako's story. She is a very well-developed character, though her past in only gradually given away - the book jumps backwards and forwards, looking at some of the key events of Hisako's life. It's a method that may take a little getting used to - especially if you haven't read anything by Banks before. However, for me, I felt it really added to the enjoyment of the book. Hisako's travelling companions aren't so well developed, and little is told of their lives, thoughts or motivations. However, as "Canal Dreams" doesn't set out to tell their stories this really isn't a problem - and I would absolutely recommend this book.
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on 21 September 2008
Iain Banks' mainstream work usually hinges on some aspect of unreality - psychosis, pseudo-history, the subconscious - and this one apparently centres on dreams, hense the title. You can read about the story and main character elsewhere, but nobody seems to have touched upon the apparent irrelevancy of the dreams, other than to highten the tension that Banks strives (and ultimately fails) to set up during this Panama-based tale of hostage situation. Most writers agree that dream sequences add little to literature, and this is the case with "Canal Dreams"; they seem to be present only to fill out this otherwise very short novel. They reveal nothing about the character, little about her present state of mind and don't advance the story by even a fraction.

The character development is unusually poor for Banks, who in every other novel seems to perform marvelously in this respect. The main character begins to be defined by her directionless childhood and the beginning of her adult like through her skills as a cellist. Then the last 100 pages suddenly reveal extreme and unlikely tragedies in her personal life, one after the other, that are almost totally unseeded during the early chapters of the novel.

It seems that as Banks' thriller turns into a slightly ridiculous action novel, he feels he has to justify his character's extreme actions by constructing a more and more sympathetic history for her. He fails in this respect too - you wonder if her implausible past is another of her dreams. But no. As if the trials during her period of capture by what at first appear to be Panamanian terrorists weren't enough.

The remaining characters are quite poorly drawn, and it hurts me to say it. It's disappointing, as a huge fan of Banks, to be merely distracted rather than wowed by one of his novels. His characters seem only to be defined by their nationality: Japanese, South American, North American, French. They wind up feeling flat, much like the characters in his more recent mainstream novel "Dead Air".

It's a fine read if you have a few long train journeys in your schedule, and its shortness is here a blessing as it means the disappointment is more minor for it. It's beautifully written and there are some imaginative and insightful descriptions, both of the main character in particular and of events as they occur. Otherwise it's unusually forgettable for one of Banks', nowhere near the standard of "The Wasp Factory", "The Crow Road" or "Whit".

5 / 10

David Brookes
Author of "Half Discovered Wings"
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on 12 July 2014
I have read all of Iain Banks Books, and unusually perhaps this one I have always enjoyed.

Canal Dreams tells the story of Hisako Onoda a Japanese Cello super star prodigy who when invited to play the major capitals of Europe refuses to fly, and instead chooses to take a ship from Japan. She travels as a passenger aboard across the Pacific, through the Panama canal then to the Atlantic and Europe. In the early chapters there is some mention of guerilla in Costa Rica, but this in no way prepares us for what comes next.

As she enters Panama the country is already descending into war, but caught in her world of music and plans for Europe Hisako is barely aware of this, and sleepwalks onwards despite entreaties to leave the ship and take the plane. So Hisako is still on board when the oil tanker Nakado when trapped with two other ships in the Panama Canal, becomes the subject of an attack.

I won't say more about the story, just to say this is the opening, and the tale itself is one of human frailties vis human cruelties. the female character Hisako, as with all of Iain Banks female protagonist is carefully drawn and immediately compelling. the action is as cruel and relentless as any terrorist film.

With flashbacks to Hisoka's youth in Japan and a detailed knowledge of the engineering and layout of a super tanker, this book offers both exotic locals and interesting technological details.

Recommended
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VINE VOICEon 3 November 2005
Canal Dreams concerns a cello player scared of flying, who during a trip through the Panama Canal unwittingly ends up caught between revolutionaries and American special forces operatives. The basic scenario of this thriller is a good one, and the plight of the hostages stranded in the Panama Canal should result in a tense novel, but for some reason Canal Dreams never really comes to life. Probably the main culprit is the heroine Hisako, whose status as both a concert cellist and a martial artist able to kill with one strike is a little unlikely. Banks seems keen to explore what happens to people under extreme pressure – do they go meekly to their deaths or fight? It’s a good angle for a novel, but unfortunately due to her background Hisako is a very cold unemotional character who never really connects with the reader, and for all the pyrotechnics the action scenes never really come to life. Canal Dreams isn’t a bad book – there are plenty of nice moments in Banks writing to keep the pages turning, but compared to his other novels this is a rather flat and unengaging work. For Banks completists only.
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on 29 April 1999
As with all of Iain Banks' novels, I sat straight down and started reading avidly. This is a very different novel at the start to his other works, at first I was thinking it a weak novel, but then I found that I was being lulled into a sense of peacefulness, but still half expecting something to happen.
When it happens, Banks managed once again to take over every emotion possible, and left me feeling completely drained. This is a masterpiece of writing, if it gets you the right way.
My advice - read it from cover to cover without stopping for anything - if you dip in and out, you'll loose the mood.
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on 11 May 2003
It’s often easier to approach an Iain M. Banks novel than one without the middle initial. At least with the “M” present and correct you know what genre you’re going to be reading, whereas his so-called “mainstream” work seems to take place in every conceivable genre plus a few he has created for himself.
Unlike novels such as “The Bridge” or “Walking on Glass”, “Canal Dreams” is based completely in reality. Unlike “The Crow Road” or “Dead Air”, you’d be forgiven for forgetting this fact. The story concerns a famous Japanese cellist who becomes involved in a hostage situation on board a ship unable to escape from the Panama Canal. Essentially, this book is a thriller, but because it’s Iain Banks, you get the suspicion that there’s a lot more going on under the surface than you’re actually aware of. Which is often a good thing, but in this case I couldn’t really make head nor tail of it.
I suspect, though, that “Canal Dreams” was more a satirical take on politics at the time of its publication, making it – at least to a degree – a little irrelevant here and now. Of course, you can just read this as a thriller, but to get more from this book perhaps you need to be older than me. Well, that’s enough of my naysaying – “Canal Dreams” is a very clear, often shocking, illustration of the way life can treat you in very unexpected ways, and just how fragile our lives truly are. Banks keeps the events described realistic right up until the end… without giving away what happens, just bear in mind that the central character’s final actions are completely impossible.
There’s a great deal of tension felt when reading this book – Banks could (and does) do anything at any moment, which enhances the sense that life can and will throw anything your way whether you like it or not. High-octane is probably the best way to describe “Canal Dreams”, and in the end that’s probably all that can be fairly said of it. Simply put, this is an entertaining, well-written read, but intrinsically shallow compared to the more cerebral efforts usually on offer from Banks.
Worth a read, but don’t expect it to keep you thinking for long.
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on 30 December 2011
As an avid Banks fan, I'm making my way through his entire works. This looks like the perfect little book to get through over the Christmas holiday. It is by far the worst Banks' book I have read so far. There doesn't seem to be much of a story at all. I felt no empathy or emotional connection to any of the characters. Not worth the time. People interested in Banks should look towards Crow Road, Steep approach to Garbadale, Wasp Nest and Transition. These books cannot fail to excite and provoke thought. After all, we all have a bad day, this was Banks'.
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on 20 December 2012
Interesting setting and scenario for the book. Not sure I found the main character entirely plausible and there seemed to be no credible explanation for what gave her the drive to commit the violence she was required to in the last third of the book. There were several unexplained threads too - why was the proposal of marriage by the celebrity important in any shape or form was a mystery.

Having said all that I generally enjoy Banks's work and I enjoyed this one too, despite having no dynamic twist that you normally associate with him.
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on 9 May 2016
Actually if Banks had edited out all the dream sequences in this book it would have been ten times better. I really don't understand what they're doing in the novel. They slow down the read and confuse the reader. This could have been a very interesting novel but it fails on so many levels. There is little direction for the reader. What's the book about? The loneliness of the successful cellist? Fear of flying? Lost love? Or who to take on a gang of lusty, ruthless terrorists single handed? A most peculiar novel.
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on 10 April 2010
This book would probably work better as a straight thriller, but is cluttered with flashbacks and dream sequences of the main character. Whilst these are probably supposed to add depth, it doesn't work and I never really engaged with the heroine. One quote on the blurb compares Ian Banks with Grahame Greene -- obviously not an author the reviewer has ever read -- don't waste your money on this novel, get some Greene instead!
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