The Coffee Trader: A Novel (Ballantine Reader's Circle)

by David Liss

Hardcover, 2003



Fiction. Suspense. Thriller. Historical Fiction. HTML:The Edgar Awardâ??winning novel A Conspiracy of Paper was one of the most acclaimed debuts of the year. In his richly suspenseful second novel, author David Liss once again travels back in time to a crucial moment in cultural and financial history. His destination: Amsterdam, 1659â??a mysterious world of trade populated by schemers and rogues, where deception rules the day. On the worldâ??s first commodities exchange, fortunes are won and lost in an instant. Miguel Lienzo, a sharp-witted trader in the cityâ??s close-knit community of Portuguese Jews, knows this only too well. Once among the cityâ??s most envied merchants, Miguel has lost everything in a sudden shift in the sugar markets. Now, impoverished and humiliated, living on the charity of his petty younger brother, Miguel must find a way to restore his wealth and reputation. Miguel enters into a partnership with a seduc-tive Dutchwoman who offers him one last chance at successâ??a daring plot to corner the market of an astonishing new commodity called â??coffee.â?ť To succeed, Miguel must risk everything he values and test the limits of his commercial guile, facing not only the chaos of the markets and the greed of his competitors, but also a powerful enemy who will stop at nothing to see him ruined. Miguel will learn that among Amsterdamâ??s ruthless businessmen, betrayal lurks everywhere, and even friends hide secret agendas. With humor, imagination, and mystery, David Liss depicts a world of subterfuge, danger, and repressed longing, where religious and cultural traditions clash with the demands of a new and exciting way of doing business. Readers of historical suspense and lovers of coffee (even decaf) will be up all night… (more)

Library's rating


½ (450 ratings; 3.6)

User reviews

LibraryThing member jhedlund
The Coffee Trader is a well-drawn tale that takes place in 17th century Amsterdam at a fascinating time - the dawn of the financial exchange. Amsterdam was an extremely open and cosmopolitan society relative to other European countries at the time. Central to this story is the fact that Jews were
Show More
permitted to practice their faith openly while the Inquisition was still going strong in Spain, Portugal and elsewhere.

The protaganist of the story is Miguel Lienzo, who is part of the community of Portuguese Jews living and working in Amsterdam. Miguel is attempting to rescue himself from financial ruin by setting up a scheme to corner a new commodities market - coffee.

The writing is excellent and evocative. Although I've never been to Amsterdam, by the end of the book I could recognize neighborhoods, rivers, markets, taverns and even smell the city. It is worth reading the book just for the history. It is also quite a page turner, as the suspense builds up and keeps you guessing as the novel moves along.

The reason I only gave the book 3.5 stars is because the characters, while interesting, lacked an emotional depth that I require in order to LOVE a book. You want to have something to grab onto in a character, whether good or bad, in order to set your allegiances. The story here was great, but I just didn't care that much about most of the characters one way or the other.

The most interesting aspect of the book was in its parallels to what is happening in today's economy. This book depicts the origin and birthplace of "exotic financial instruments," and then, just like today, the trading of these instruments led to some pretty seedy behavior. Behavior that was at best questionable and at worst entirely despicable. If it weren't for the setting and the funny clothes, customs and speech, the novel could have taken place on Wall Street!
Show Less
LibraryThing member TadAD
Liss' novel about machinations and manipulations on the Amsterdam commodities exchange was an interesting story. He has obviously done his homework, creating a vivid picture of the city in 1659. Over this he laid a well-crafted knot of schemes and counter-schemes as the main character, Miguel,
Show More
strives to drag himself out of economic ruin in the face of an unscrupulous enemy who wants to destroy him. The story also provides an interesting perspective into the lives of the Jewish minority in the city, particularly the Conversos fleeing from the Inquisition.

I enjoyed the story overall. The characters are well and richly drawn. It is difficult to like any of them unreservedly as their faults are just as apparent to the reader as their virtues—this makes them seem much more human. The strong point of this novel is Liss' ability to keep the reader guessing about who is playing whom. As Miguel tries to unravel the motivations of those around him, the reader is entertained with deciphering the shifting and sliding alliances.

This is worth a read.
Show Less
LibraryThing member robbieg_422
Follow the unscrupulous dealings of the merchants and traders of 17th century Amsterdam through the eyes of Miguel Lienzo, a Portuguese Jew who, once wealthy and respected on the exchange, had fallen on hard times with one trade-gone-bad. Like many traders of the time (maybe any time…), Miguel
Show More
was master of manipulation and deception; a way of life he had become accustomed to in Portugal, where Jews learned to fancy themselves Catholic and despise Jews to avoid The Inquisition. Amsterdam is not without its dangers in this area as well. He discovers a new commodity; a strange fruit called coffee that is nearly unheard of. He quickly becomes seduced by its effects, and plots to regain his fortune with it. From the first page, we are given a sense of Miguel’s desire to redeem himself, and also of his desire to “do the right thing”, that seems to drive his character throughout the novel. Unfortunately, Miguel has a little trouble in that area, too, as he also has a talent for finding trouble, and often convinces himself that the end justifies the means. Like the coffee that would be his salvation or his ruin, Miguel left a thick, bitter taste in my mouth sometimes, but I found myself always wanting a second cup. He is likeable in many ways, in spite of, or maybe because of his wiles, and I quickly found myself intrigued by his ventures. I also learned much about 17th century Amsterdam, the stock exchange of that period, and the life of the segregated Jew in that time and place. In the end, will Miguel’s deception be the ruin of him, or will he come out on top once again? I won’t tell, but will say that I enjoyed pouring a nice hot cup and going along for the ride.
Show Less
LibraryThing member WinterFox
Less of a straightforward mystery than his first book, A Conspiracy of Paper, Liss's book about the advent of coffee as a real commodity on the market in Amsterdam, along with a vivid portrayal of Jewish life in the city in the mid-1600s. The result is a tale where not many people come out looking
Show More
great, but everything comes together nicely and interestingly.

The tale here regards Miguel Lienzo, and revolves around his attempt with a Dutch widow, Geertruid Damhuis, to corner the market on coffee and by those means amass a considerable fortune. The problems facing them are considerable, as well - building a market for coffee when it's a real niche product at that point, raising the capital, avoiding the notice of the Ma'amad, the Jewish council that seeks to maintain strict order over the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam.

The plot is interesting and intricate, and ended in a place that I found surprising and satisfying, but the characters really carried the day. Miguel's a compelling lead, trying to work his way out of debt, charming but not entirely good, self-serving but wanting to help the community, as well. His business partner Geertruid; his brother, business rival, and creditor Daniel; Ma'amad leader and businessman Solomon Parido; Daniel's wife Hannah; excommunicated usurer Alferonda; all and more feel very real and interesting, as fictional characters go, and I very much enjoyed reading about them.

Liss's writing style is still very strong, evoking the time period nicely and giving a real sense of what it was to live there. Similarly, the concepts of calls, puts, and the other trading mechanisms come across cleanly and without too much effort.

All of Liss's books that I've read thus far have been very good, and this one won't disappoint you. I'm not sure I'd start with this one if I'm introducing someone to his work - A Conspiracy of Paper is probably better for that - but it's certainly a good place to continue.
Show Less
LibraryThing member jasmyn9
Miguel, a Portugese Jew, is nearly ruined. He owes money to many, and has little hope of making it back on the Excange in Amsterdam. Approached by a Dutch woman named Geertruid about a new fruit called coffee, they hatch a wild scheme to make them both rich.

All of Amsterdam seems to be against the
Show More
scheme, including Miguel's own brother. Without giving too much away, let's just say things don't go as planned, and many get caught in the cross fire of the trade.

Wonderfully developed characters that make you want to shake the book and yell "What are you doing silly!" as if there were really in front of you. I found myself feeling sympathy for the oddest sorts of folk and cheering for the "bad" guy at times. A definate must read.
Show Less
LibraryThing member havetea
Historical Fiction. Enjoyed the story held my attention and the writing was strong and well woven. Easy to be transported to another time you feel like you are the character.
LibraryThing member janoorani24
This book was a disappointment. I didn't develop any liking for the main character, Miguel, and thought he was very whiny. The two main female characters, Hannah and Geertruid weren't very well-developed, and none of the minor characters was very like-able or memorable. I really had to force myself
Show More
to finish the book. It dragged on for page after page and pretty much made me want to scream with boredom. I normally like historical novels, and usually like books set in this time period, but this was boring, boring, boring. The only thing in the book's favor is that it seems to have been well-researched, and some of the imagery of Amsterdam in this time-period was good. Not great, just good. 2 1/2 stars.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Periodista
I couldn't quite keep up with how the cornering was supposed to work. Who knew that they were doing futures trading way back then?

However, this book was a perfect fit for me because of all the social and historical information Liss conveys so skillfully. My cup of tea. Or coffee. The homes of the
Show More
rich Amsterdam merchants with insignias above their doors indicating how their fortunes were made--even images of "African brutes." The excitement of discovering this magical new drug.

How Jews had to live undercover as Christians (Conversos) in Inquisition-era Portugal. Jews' relative freedom in the Netherlands. (England at the time was somewhere in between: you could be Jewish but not flaunt it.)

How the Jewish governing body, the Ma'amad, exercised control of Jewish dealings with the Christians. And also its power over Jewish women, requiring them to cover themselves completely (sound familiar?).

The semi-hidden nature of Catholics in the Netherlands--their churches behind other facades. Geertruid, Miguel 's business partner, a Christian Dutch woman drinking alcohol in public drinking places.
Show Less
LibraryThing member JanetinLondon
[The Coffee Trader] by David Liss

[The Coffee Trader] is the story of Miguel Lienzo, a Portuguese Jew living in Amsterdam in the 17th century. Miguel makes his living by trading on the stock market, then in its infancy. He was formerly very successful but, shortly before the book begins, he lost his
Show More
entire fortune when he bet the wrong way on the price of sugar. He is now heavily in debt and reduced to living in his uncongenial brother’s damp basement.

Miguel has now become the equivalent of what the 20th century would call a Day Trader, hanging around listening to market gossip, piecing together short term deals here and there and hoping that when the reckoning is done – once a month in those days – he will have reduced rather than added to his huge debts. His trading difficulties are made worse by the restrictions placed on Jewish traders, not by the Dutch government but by the religious leaders of the Jewish community, who are trying to ensure the continued toleration of the majority community by avoiding too much financial conflict. Jews are allowed to trade with non-Jews, but not to partner with them, and not to deal on their behalf, and all their financial transactions are supposed to remain within the Jewish community. Miguel has never really adhered to these rules, although he does have to be careful not to be too blatant, or he will be expelled from the community.

At the beginning of the story, a Dutch acquaintance of his offers him a partnership in trying to corner the market in coffee, then a new commodity in Europe. They hatch a plan to ensure they can buy a lot of coffee cheaply, then sell it for a higher price and make a fortune. Those who understand stock markets will grasp easily how they hope to do this, and will know whether it is legal or not. I had no idea on both scores, but it didn’t take away from my enjoyment.

The story consists of Miguel finding out about this new coffee – there are several amusing scenes of people encountering it for the first time, not knowing how to prepare or drink it, surprised at its bitter taste and impressed by its stimulant properties – and interacting with various characters either trying to find out what he is doing, offering to help him, or warning him off, as well as with some characters from his past dealings. He doesn’t always know whom to trust, and he doesn’t always make the right decisions. The story is as much about trust and integrity and their role in this new kind of business dealing (then as now, very limited if you want to be successful) as it is about coffee and the stock market.

It is a good story and I enjoyed it. But I found the characters mainly very weak and one-dimensional. Miguel’s brother Daniel = spiteful, the head of the Jewish community = insincere, his business partner = enigmatic, etc. None of them felt real to me, and I couldn’t understand the motivations for many of their actions. If you are happy to read a story driven mainly by plot, with little realistic character development, you are likely to enjoy this book. But if you prefer to follow characters on a journey of self-discovery, enlightenment, growth, etc., this is probably not for you.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Oregonreader
As a big fan of David Liss, I had looked forward to reading this book. It contains the historical detail I expected, and an interesting story line, involving a Jewish commodities trader in 1659 Amsterdam who hopes to make a fortune trading coffee. Unfortunately most of the characters are so
Show More
unpleasant that I found this slow going. It is so hard to care what happens to any of them. Aside from this, the book is as well crafted as his two earlier books and worth taking a look at.
Show Less
LibraryThing member maryreinert
I love historical fiction and this was no exception; however, I found it more difficult to read than Conspiracy of Paper. The convoluted scheme of Miguel is hard to follow for someone who is not a follower of the stock market. I found myself going back to reread sections in order to understand what
Show More
was really taking place. I loved the cultural background. Having just read a wonderful book, The Last Jew by Noah Gordon, this was a perfect followup about the conversos and the Spanish Inquistion -- Miguel being in Amsterdam because of the Inquistion in Spain. I found that aspect of the book more interesting than futures, calls, and puts.
Show Less
LibraryThing member DWWilkin
This is a very strong book to read. By that, this book has depth. As a historical novel, you want some glimpse into the world as it was so that you leave with some factual understanding of that period admidst the fiction. In Coffee Trader you learn a great deal about Amsterdam, the center of
Show More
finance in the 1600's.

You also learn of the flourishing jewish community free of the inquisition and how that atrocious institution changed the attitudes of the people it persecuted to a degree. This is handled with a deft hand so you are not preached at.

But, there is a but, as good as some reviewers have felt, Liss spends a great deal in the early part of this otherwise well crafted tale, hitting us with a great deal of tell instead of show. Long paragraphs help set the piece, but leave no room to unfold the tale tale early on. It leaves me wanting to catch my breath, take a break.

Liss does a tremendous job describing a world and you feel that you are there, and understand it, and can grasp the complex nature of his characters quest for profit and success in trade. He however needed to bring in something to break up that in the beginning.

Working around that, is a tale carefully plotted, that when all seems well, a disaster looms to cast all in doubt and leave the reader hungry for more of the tale at that precise moment. A well done job, certainly worth the time and investment.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Limelite
This book percolates with 17th C. intrigue, is steeped in the history of the exiled Portuguese Jewish community and the Ma’amad (Jewish religious enforcers), and spills the beans about the doings of the Amsterdam stock market where Miguel Lienzo makes the trades and undertakes the manipulations
Show More
that will garner him a second fortune in coffee.

He needs to recoup his losses from the sugar crash, but struggles to do so with his own brother and a powerful member of the Ma’amad, Senhor Parido. It is only when Geertruid, a whore and tavern frequenter, entices him with a scheme for cornering the coffee trade out from under the noses of the British East India Company that Lienzo is able to begin his journey on the road to financial recovery. But is she to be trusted?

Faster paced than his novel "Whiskey Rebels," Liss sticks to his financial scheming formula and makes economy and commerce of the time interesting as well as instructional. Enjoyed this intellectual and rather esoteric historical fiction novel by a writer who does it originally and well.
Show Less
LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
The Coffee Trader was good, not great, and I'd recommend it to people who are interested in the history of Jews in Europe during the Inquisition and beyond, or to those people interested in getting a down and dirty look at the way capitalism operates in the world of the 1700s.

The whole time I was
Show More
reading this I was thinking of this game I used to play with my kids when they were younger called "Diplomacy." In that game you set up alliances and made deals, but you didn't have to honor them, and so you never really knew who your friends were even as you were making deals with them. That is what happens in this book.

in a nutshell:
Liss sets this story in Amsterdam, in (I think) 1659. Even then Amsterdam was the scene of a hearty commodities trade exchange, where fortunes could be made or broken by what took place on the floor, and on the high seas as well (don't this time the Dutch East India Company was doing a lucrative trade, but there were also pirates and storms that could steal or sink a boatload of goods that were meant for the market. As the story opens, Miguel Lienzo, who was originally from Portugal but who had to leave after his family met misfortune with the Inquisition there (he was Jewish in the wrong time and the wrong place), has just lost a fortune and put himself deeply into debt over sugar. As he's wondering what to do and how to stave off his creditors, he learns from a friend in a seedier part of town that she thinks coffee is going to be the next big thing, and he decides to enter the coffee market, and jump way ahead of everyone else. At that time, coffee was virtually unknown except in the Turkish quarter. However, aside from the money problem, Miguel finds himself at the hands of a very powerful competitor and enemy from within the ranks of the local Jewish council and others who do not want to see him succeed.

It takes a while to really get into this book, but once you're there, it is a very good read. It is not really a "thriller" as it is described in many places, but it is a fine read and I recommend it if you want something out of the mainstream.
Show Less
LibraryThing member indygo88
If you're looking for likeable characters, this probably isn't the book for you. It's full of greedy ambition, lots of devious scheming, and relentless pursuit of power. It's also a bit confusing for those of us who aren't particularly knowledgeable about the ins & outs of commodities trading, etc.
Show More
But it's historical fiction & it centers on coffee, so how could I not like it at least somewhat? I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it either. The story was rather slow at times, but then it picked up near the end and then almost ended too abruptly. I have at least one other novel by David Liss on my "to be read" pile, so I'll undoubtedly give that one a try as well.
Show Less
LibraryThing member justine
A really interesting read, but not quite as amazing as A Conspiracy of Paper.
LibraryThing member cindysprocket
I felf the book bogged down a little in the middle of the book.Not enough to keep me from reading on. Once I finnished the book , I'm glad I kept on reading. I thoroughly enjoyed the book.
LibraryThing member tracyfox
It seems like everywhere people have just read, are reading, or are planning to read The Coffee Trader. I like historical fiction and love coffee so I picked up a copy. I should have looked more closely. I enjoyed the setting, varied cast of characters and interesting plot setup, but felt the
Show More
author failed to really leverage any of them. Within fifty pages the book had focused so narrowly on the financial grapplings of the characters and a confusing array of puts, stays and futures that I soon lost interest. I pushed through to the end but was left wishing I had learned more about the atmosphere of 17th century Amsterdam, the factors that led to Dutch tolerance for Jews and Muslims in their midst, the motivations (aside from greed) that drove the characters and the factors that fueled the rise of coffee culture throughout Europe. The book was well-written and the inclusion of Alferonda's memoirs broke up the narrative, but I would recommend this only to readers with an interest in financial markets and commercial history.
Show Less
LibraryThing member catarina1
Appropriate topic for current US financial problems. Full of scammers and schemers. None of the characters are particularly likable. It was a good read. the ending was somewhat flat - characters were "out of character" in their reactions to the final scheme.
LibraryThing member mattrutherford
I enjoyed this. Nice descriptions, made me feel like I was there. A little cold, though.
LibraryThing member ferdinand1213
This was an excellent follow-up to A Conspiracy of Paper. While Conspiracy of Paper was focused on a single historical event that could be readily pinpointed, the Coffee Trader very effectively weaves a fascinating story centered on a period of enduring historical interest.
LibraryThing member PointedPundit
I will never understand why it took me so long to discover this book. Stuck in an airport for one of those endless waits that have become a flying staple, I saw this book on a news stand. I am glad I did.

My endless wait became enjoyable. With The Coffee Trader, author David Liss has penned a
Show More
page-turning portrait of Amsterdam in 1659. Set around the world’s first commodity market, this historical novel has everything: mystery, betrayal, sincerity, deception, revenge, redemption, romance and suspense.

The plot is all-too-understood by anyone who trades for a living. Miguel Lienzo has lost everything. Impoverished and humiliated, he plots a path to return his wealth and reputation. Along the way he encounters unforgettable characters and plot twists.

In addition to being a great read, the book draws a vivid picture of 17th Century Amsterdam. Open to immigration, innovative in its commerce, the city offers a perfect setting for Liss’ theme of whether people who manipulate money for a living are inevitably tempted to manipulate truth and morality.

If you are like me and have missed this book, do yourself a favor. Buy a copy. Read it. Its financial schemes, complex characters and intrigue-ridden plot provide an unforgettable story.

Penned by the Pointed Pundit
August 29, 2007
9:20:30 PM
Show Less
LibraryThing member mbergman
Another fascinating novel set among the 17th-century Dutch. This one is surprisingly fascinating because it's about an attempt to corner the market, on the Amsterdam mercantile Exchange (as that business form was just emerging) of a newly emerging product--coffee. A Portuguese Jew who has fled the
Show More
Inquisition for the relatively tolerant Amsterdam becomes an unwitting pawn in a complicated scheme to ruin a powerful figure in the Jewish community there. He repeatedly convinces himself that his unethical choices & behavior are justified under the circumstances in which he finds himself.
Show Less
LibraryThing member shawnd
Jerky investment banker is the feel I got for the protagonist, although you find yourself pulling for the guy. I was suprised by this--since the book lists with aplomb that he doesn't pay his creditors, slinks around, doesn't want to be tied down to marriage, etc. etc. An interesting portrayal of
Show More
the treatment of Jews in Portugal, Holland, Spain etc of the times. The writing is basic and almost poor--but the story concept and the plot makes up for it, for real. Tells a fictional story of how Coffee first became big in Europe, who were the pioneers and how it happened.
Show Less
LibraryThing member aapjebaapje
An excellent novel. I found the detail about trading on the Exchange difficult to follow but the storyline was excellent and there were many twists and turns.


Random House

Original publication date





0375508546 / 9780375508547

Similar in this library


Original language

Page: 0.1404 seconds