113 of 126 people found the following review helpful
I was once fortunate enough to receive, as a gift, a bottle of 40 year old single malt scotch, handcrafted in a single barrel on the Isle of Skye. Tasting it was a stunning experience; complex, evocative, mellow, smooth, dense and yet light all at once. Sunshine and butterflies in my mouth it was, and it has left me listless in regards to drinking lesser scotch. The Whiskey Rebels is the literary equivalent of that drink. It is a complex, fascinating, evocative, mellow, smooth, dense and light reading experience and it is my favorite novel of this year. I will be mightily surprised and disappointed if it doesn't make the year-end top ten lists, but this is for me, by far and away, the best book I've read in 2008.
If you have read any of Liss's previous books you already know what a gifted writer he is. If you haven't, then you do yourself an injustice. This book transcends even his earlier works in greatness and I suspect that The Whiskey Rebels could become a classic. It is hard to know where to begin in praising this book. Liss is a wonderfully literate writer, even more so than Iain Pears, and he effortlessly transports you in time and space to the period he wishes to evoke. In this case the year is 1792 and Liss crafts a tale which alternately follows two protagonists until their stories merge near the end of the novel. The first is Captain Ethan Saunders, a spy for the Americans during the revolutionary war, friend of Washington, Hamilton, and other worthies, who found himself disgraced and cashiered at the end of the war when accused of being a double agent. Wallowing in guilt, and the muddy floors of rotgut taverns, Saunders has spent the last ten years trying to drown his sorrows in cheap whiskey. The other protagonist is Joan Maycott, a young woman trying to make her way in the harsh and difficult frontier world who aspires to become a novelist. Both characters are drawn into a whirlwind of deceit, lies, and misdirection as greedy speculators connive to make a run on the newly formed Bank of the United States.
This book has it all. Lively action, intrigues within intrigues, daring adventure, taut writing, sparkling dialogue, incredible plotting, depth of characterization, a sense of humor, and a sure hand at the literary tiller. It is so deeply atmospheric that you feel like you are in 1792 Philadelphia. The portrayals of various actual historical figures are realistic, believable, and enjoyable. Hallowed names of yore are brought to vibrant life, sounding and acting as real as your own family, yet their qualities which will make them famous still shine through. In The Whiskey Rebels actual historical personages are not the focus though and the stories of the two fictional protagonists is where this book truly dazzles. As Liss switches between them, chapter by chapter, I was so caught up in their individual experiences that I was inevitably jarred by switching viewpoints. His writing so tightly draws you in and is so absorbing that you don't want to leave the character you're with; yet within a few sentences you are once again completely absorbed with the current character. So it goes, back and forth, until the stunning denouement. If there is one thing that strikes me as magical about Liss's writing it is how well he does period dialogue. Writing compelling and scintillating dialogue is hard enough without having to make it sound natural to the 1790's. Liss does this with ease though; the conversations never ring false and they never stray from their period. The magical part though is the dialogue is as clear and understandable as speaking with a friend.
I have no criticism of this book at all; it was a nearly perfect book and if there was a flaw within it, I couldn't find it. I highly recommend it to any and all. In fact, I give it my highest recommendation.
37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
I have never considered myself especially a fan of historical fiction. Nonetheless, quite a few of my favorite novels fall into that category. Honestly, I sort of love these books in spite of their period setting, not because of it. That said, The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss is the best mystery I've read in a long, long time.
It's set in a period I know little about--post-Revolutionary War America. Again, to be honest, my knowledge of American history in general doesn't go much beyond what I learned in grammar school. It bored me senseless because they never taught the really interesting stuff in school. Liss's tale of the Whisky Rebellion (which I had literally never heard of) was complex and riveting.
Our hero, of sorts, is Ethan Saunders, a thoroughly disgraced former Revolutionary War spy. He was framed as a traitor to the revolution, ultimately causing him to loose the woman he loved, Cynthia Pearson. In the years since, attended by his slave, Leonidas, Saunders has become a penniless, womanizing drunkard. It sounds bad, and it is bad. This man formerly of sterling character has fallen truly low. Still, for all his many flaws, Ethan Saunders is utterly charming. The man charmed my socks right off, and it is his charisma and humor that caused me so much delight throughout this novel. Mr. Liss, I beg you, bring back Ethan Saunders in future novels!
The actually mystery is quite convoluted, and a bit difficult to sum up in a few sentences. It has to do with the early American economy, and given my ignorance of history and economics, I had to pay close attention to follow everything that took place. But that, too, was the pleasure of this novel. It was complex. It was challenging. There was a large cast of characters, with some appearances by people even I remember learning about, such as Alexander Hamilton. This is an intricate 500-page mystery. There were twists and turns and surprises aplenty. At no point could I have guessed how it was going to end. So, in all ways, it was everything a mystery should be. In addition, it was a romance, a buddy story, a history lesson, an espionage novel, and more. I was fascinated, for instance, with the relationship between Ethan and Leonidas, which was unlike any I'd read about before. The Whiskey Rebels is highly recommended for readers of all stripes and inclinations.
36 of 43 people found the following review helpful
David Liss is the author of the Conspiracy of Paper novels featuring Benjamin Weaver, and I was looking forward to reading his latest novel, The Whiskey Rebels. I was a little disappointed.
Set in New York, Philadelphia and western Pennsylvania just after the American Revolution, the story is narrated by Ethan Saunders, a likeable loser once accused of treason, and Joan Maycott, a wife on the Western frontier, whose husband is a whiskey distiller. The novel opens when the husband of an old flame of Ethan's disappears. Ethan soon finds himself involved in much more than the case of a missing man: a plot to take down Alexander Hamilton's Bank of the United States.
While the premise is intriguing, and the first fifty pages had me hooked, it was hard for me to keep my attention on the plot of this novel for very long, and I think that this convoluted story could have been delivered in fewer pages. Joan's narrative was unconvincing because her voice didn't even sound like a woman's. Ethan's story was much more convincing. In fact, he pretty much stole the show, and I kept fast-forwarding through Joan's story to get to Ethan. On the other hand, Liss's prose, like the young Republic itself, is straightforward and to the point. Although this is a pretty decent thriller, all things considered, my expectations weren't met.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
I had a chance to get a review copy of The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss via Amazon Vine, but I decided against it as there were some other choices that I liked better. But after hearing good things about the book, I picked it up at the library. What I found was a rich story set in 1792, during the early days of America's independence from England.
Ethan Saunders is living a disgraced life in Philadelphia. He and his partner, Richard Fleet, were spies for the American side, but a raid on their premises turned up documents that were being routed to the British. Neither man was hanged for treason, but both had their life destroyed. Saunders lost his job, his self-respect, and the woman to whom he was going to get married, Cynthia Fleet. Petty crime allows him to survive, but there's a number of people who would like to see him dead. When a mysterious person shows up in an alley to prevent Saunder's death at the hands of a man whose wife he seduced, Saunders is drawn into a conspiracy that threatens to destroy the financial system of the young nation. It also forces him to question everything that's happened since his spying accusation, as he might have another chance to draw Cynthia back into his life if he understands what is really going on.
The story also has a second plot, one that involves a woman by the name of Joan Maycott. Her story starts ten years earlier, as a precocious young woman who isn't afraid to pursue something that she wants. She catches the eye of a young man who was injured in the war, and together they start a new life as husband and wife, running a small carpentry shop while she works on what she thinks will be the first American novel. They are approached by a landowner who offers to trade them land on the western border of Pennsylvania for their war debt that the state may never pay on. This new "fruitful" land turns out to be untamed wilderness not far from Pittsburgh. Even worse, the rights to the land still belong to a powerful person in Pittsburgh, and he can have them tossed from their plot for nearly any reason unless Maycott allows herself to be "entertained" by him. She refuses to give in, and in time they are able to clear the land and develop strong friendships with the neighboring settlers, all of whom are in the same predicament. Her husband figures out that whiskey is the real form of money in this area, as nothing can be exported for cash. The troubles escalate when the new government decides to tax whiskey, even though the whiskey makers there have no cash from their efforts. Rather than give up their livelihood, they decide to fight back. Hence, the whiskey rebellion...
These two plotlines start out completely separate, separated by 10 years. While Saunders is going through day to day life with his investigation, Maycott's story is racing forward in months and years, bringing her closer to the current day, where her purposes and Saunders' business merge to become a common struggle to figure out who really controls the financial purse strings of America, and whether the greed of a small group of people can destroy all that the American Revolution fought for. I found myself drawn to most all the characters, and enjoyed their gritty attitude that fought on when surrender would have been so much easier. It also gave me a better appreciation for the fact that regardless of how much time passes, the intent and greed of man remains a constant. The examples of today's society aren't anything new. Men have been lusting over power and money forever...
I enjoyed The Whiskey Rebels, and it was nice that the size of the book meant I wouldn't finish it in a day or two. Given the quality of this book, I'll probably go back and pick up some of Liss's other historical novels.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
I tend to like historical mysteries/thrillers, but for some reason, had never picked up any of Liss' well-regarded books until now. The post-Revolutionary War setting intrigued me enough to try this one out, as I know next to nothing about the era in general, and precisely nothing about the real speculation and banking panic which inspired the story.
The book is driven by separate plotlines featuring a pair of awfully compelling protagonists. Captain Saunders is a penniless, drunk rogue who left the Revolutionary Army under scandalous (and possibly unfounded) circumstances some years earlier, and spends most of his time stewing in his own disgrace. He becomes embroiled in the search for the missing husband of his true love, which leads him down some shady streets, and into the corridors of power. Namely those of his former commander, Alexander Hamilton, now the Secretary of the Treasury. Meanwhile, Joan Maycott is a forward-thinking young woman of brains and beauty, who marries her first love and sets out with him to the wild wild West (that is to say, Western Pennsylvania). She heads down muddy paths and into a grim future, eking out a living with her husband under the thumb of a despotic overlord.
Unfortunately, although the two plotlines alternate chapters, their timelines do not coincide, making for some rather awkward back and forth. Captain Saunders' adventures take place in 1791, while Mrs. Maycott's take place several years earlier, and must catch up to the Saunders timeline. This results in some herky-jerky pacing, as days in one chapter give way to months in another. All of while gets even more confusing when other characters appear in both plotlines. It's not impenetrable, it just takes one out of the story a smidgen, which is unfortunate.
Otherwise, the two plotlines juxtapose well, as Saunders' story allows the reader to revel in Revolutionary-era Philadelphia, and follow the process of the fledgling financial markets, while Mrs. Maycott's captures the brutality of the West and how it changes its settlers. Of course, eventually the two stories dovetail, as a powerful speculator attempts to manipulate the market in a manner that might well spell doom for the fledgling American republic. Unfortunately, at this point Mrs. Maycott more or less stops being a full character and instead acts as a mysterious catalyst, robbing the reader of the more sympathetic of the two protagonists. Saunders takes center stage in a game of financial cat and mouse with huge ramifications.
Although Liss could never have known when he started, the subject matter is all too timely, and those looking for a good read dealing with market panics will find this to their taste. It's also got some rich historical atmosphere and detail, combining historical and fictional characters in a seamless manner. The dialogue deserves special mention, as Liss clearly revels in doling out clever wordplay to his protagonists. All in all a good read slightly undone by problems of pace, construction, and length.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on September 2, 2009
This book isn't the best choice for readers who like a book that is steeped in history and also tells a story. Maybe mystery lovers would like it.
It's also extremely difficult to keep the characters straight and to keep track of what is happening. It's not an easy book to read.
I like historic fiction and that is what this book is supposed to be. While I can't say that it's not historic fiction, I do say that there is not enough history in it for my taste. I'm having trouble forcing myself to finish it.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 1, 2008
In combining fictional characters and events of The American Revolutionary War with historical accuracy concerning the burgeoning financial institutions of the young republic , this entertaining but lumbering historical novel, try as it might, fails to develop the concepts of democracy and finance into a high adventure.
Told in two first-person narrations, in somewhat alternating chapters, The Whiskey Rebels, tells the stories of Ethan Saunders, a disgraced spy from The Revolutionary War, whose comedic narrative is certainly inspired by Melville's Ishmael, and Joan Maycott, a frontier woman whose patriotic ideals are tested when her attempts to capitalize on a whiskey making operation are oppressed by American forces of tyranny. Deep into the book, the two narrators' paths cross, igniting the novel to exciting possibilites, yet subsequent chapters barb more than mesh and there soon seems little reason for the dual narration, or the character's involvement in a plot to control the market.
Author David Liss is a wonderful descriptive writer and an excellent historian. 18th Century America comes alive like the smoky air of a young and rustic 4th of July celebration, while Ethan Saunders narration caused me to laugh out loud several times. But the suspense and intrigue regarding the American stock market, the essence of the novel, often reads like a dry financial report. Great pains are taken to explain the workings of the young financial democracy, and such stock market insight is rarely absorbed by the diminishing derring-do spirit. The biggest problem is the narratives' feeble conviction regarding a plot to pilfer the financial institutions of the day. Neither narrative, although buried in verbal reasoning, has much stake in the ground here, and both characters would be better served as seperates in a more traditional, less gimmicky historical book. As an unjustly disgraced spy, Ethan Saunders is an exciting oppurtunity that is wasted on tedious proceedings. What should have been a riveting moment of the book, Saunders meeting George Washington at the height of chaos, is a passive page-turn that does nothing to advance insight or story, and offers, at least, the wry description of Washington smelling like wool.
The read was frustrating, intriguing, enlightening, and disappointing.
16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Not long ago--certainly within the living memory of anyone approaching the age of 40--nearly every novel, movie, and television adventure show featured a white male hero. When people outside that mold appeared at all, they were invariably either victims to be rescued, sidekicks, or villains. But within the past 20 years, that paradigm has been completely turned on its head. In The Whiskey Rebels we see what happens when the postmodern cult of the anti-White male reaches its absurd climax and history must be tortured to accommodate it.
The Whiskey Rebels is a decently written novel. It is a page-turner in the worst sense of that term. That is, the author's prose is sufficiently punchy to keep you turning pages to see what happens next. Unfortunately, what usually happens next is "not much." The plot is disjointed and full of unsurprising surprise twists. The dialog is what you'd expect from a "made for HBO" type historical adventure. There are scenes that make the reader groan out loud thanks to bizarre and totally unnecessary sexual imagery.
But my real problem with this book was the characters who were little more than pawns acting out a morality play in the 21st century mode. The "hero" is Captain Saunders, a wrongfully disgraced Revolutionary War officer. About two-thirds of the book is written from his perspective and he sees himself as an exceptionally dashing and clever fellow. The reader soon discovers, however, that he is a scoundrel and a drunken boob who, unbeknownst to him, is being manipulated by the other characters in the book.
The other third of the book is told through the eyes of Joan Maycott, a brilliantly self-educated woman who moved to the Pennsylvania frontier with her husband. Though cheated and brutalized by the local aristocrat and his thugs, the Maycotts and the other hearty frontier folk find success in developing a new way to make whiskey. But the imposition of the federal tax on whiskey exacerbates tensions on the frontier and Maycott is left a widow seeking revenge on the federal reprobates and speculators who ruined her life. She and her Whiskey Boys infiltrate Philadelphia and launch a complex financial scheme to utterly destroy the creature they feel most responsible for their plight.
The other major protagonists in the book are as follows: Kyler Lavien--a kind of Jewish ninja in the employ of Alexander Hamilton who has neatly compartmentalized his idyllic family life from his day job as a spy/assassin; Leonidas--Saunder's slave who is presented as ten times the man his master is; Dalton and Richmond--two whiskey boys who the author "outs" inelegantly and then puts forth the ludicrous idea that everyone on the frontier was perfectly fine with their atypical living arrangement; and Skye, an older Scottsman and one of the whiskey boys whose main purpose in the novel is to be a rejected suitor for the widow Maycott.
The villains are all, without exception, rich white males.
So the old trope has now been completely inverted. Once you realize this, the course of events is easily predicted.
Let me just say that I find tales like this to be just as tedious and uncreative as the ones of yore in which only rich, white men could be the heroes.
A couple of the Founding Fathers pass through the pages of The Whiskey Rebels. Alexander Hamilton is presented enigmatically--of course, he is shown sneaking off to visit his mistress. George Washington appears in one scene, though the author seemed fixated upon Washington's false teeth more than anything else.
So in short, this book was a disappointment. Not exactly a yawner, but simply annoying in that the author seems to be nothing more than a politically correct trend-follower. Personally, I'm tired of those.
For those of you interested in the true history of the Pennsylvania frontier, which is infinitely more interesting than this book, I recommend the following primary sources: NORTH MOUNTAIN MEMENTOS,Wilderness Chronicles of Northwestern Pennsylvania, and Thirty Thousand Miles With John Heckewelder
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
I ordered this while high on repeat viewings of "1776" and the build-up to the elections, but when it arrived, I had to ask myself "WHAT was I thinking?" This is not my style at all. I don't care much for thrillers or mysteries, and while colonial and post-revolutionary history interests me, it's not a passion.
I must say, Liss did catch my interest immediately. His hero, Ethan Saunders, comes from a great tradition of intelligent rogues with secret sorrows. He also has created a heroine in much the same vein in Joan Maycott. Not so much of the secret sorrow there, but she's young when we meet her, and hasn't had time for many sorrows.
Given that Liss' central characters are smart, reasonably interesting characters, I'd have hoped that the narrative would live up to them. Unfortunately I wasn't as captivated by it as I had hoped I'd be. It jumps about a good deal, which is disorienting, and it's dry and often difficult to push through. It's not bad, it just requires a good deal of work, which I'm not entirely sure it rewards in the end.
I would say that for those readers who are students of the American economic model, this might prove more interesting than it did to me. The story echoes the sort of questionable business practices which inform today's headlines. Fascinating as a news story, particularly when your livelihood is at stake, but perhaps not so much in novel form. Still, for readers who are fans of this sort of novel, I suspect it will pay off handsomely.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
I'm a fan of most of David Liss's work, which means that I'm perfectly happy reading arcane and lengthy, often jargon-filled, passages dealing with the historical minutia of finances: bonds and taxes and the rise of the stock market etc. But I confess to finding the Whisky Rebels less enjoyable than his earlier books.
As one now expects from Liss, we're thrown deeply into a historical period, in this case the title (a bit misleading as we're pre-Whiskey Rebellion) grounds us in near-turn of the 18th-century when Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton is in the process of trying to set up the highly controversial First Bank of the United States (as well as finance the gov't itself). We're first introduced to Ethan Saunders, a spy for George Washington during the Revolutionary War, who has lots of issues: he's been disgraced, is suspected of perhaps being a traitor, is living poor and drunk in Philadelphia, and has lost the love of his life. Here he's given a chance to redeem himself when his ex-lover recruits him for a task, the undertaking of which leads to him discovering a conspiracy against the new bank.
The second character (both narratives are first-person) is Joan Maycott, a married novelist who travels with her husband west to the "frontier"--Pennsylvania. It's a hard life and things aren't helped when they are taken in a land swindle. They eventually become whiskey distillers, which is poor timing as Hamilton announces a whiskey tax. Soon, Mrs. Maycott returns east with others to deal with those they believe caused their losses.
To be honest, I didn't find the plot or the characters particularly compelling. The historical detail was rich and detailed, but the people moving within that world never came fully alive, especially the secondary characters, even those historical personages one would think would be more colorfully portrayed. There were also jarring elements of modernism that popped up now and then in speech or thought, moments I didn't recall from his earlier historical novels and which pulled me out of the reading experience now and then. Maycott is especially I thought prone to these sort of jarring moments, and while Saunder's narration felt more grounded in the time period, his attempts at humor are mostly a bit awkward and thus detracted from his sections.
There is a lot of action ably handled, but the problems with character and tone, the density of the financial aspects (it can get a bit numbing), and some reliance on coincidence or contrived moments of plot, made this a difficult read for me. I'd highly recommend his Conspiracy of Paper and A Spectacle of Corruption, and would advise readers to try those first before picking up the Whiskey Rebels. If you don't care for whichever of those you start with, you probably won't like this