I’ve been getting quite a few requests from parents and boys looking for books with male protagonists. I have three good ones to share beginning with today’s review of AN OCCASIONALLY HAPPY FAMILY.

Theo is 13 and the narrator of the story. His older sister is almost 16 and they both do a good job of annoying each other—quite often with laugh out loud results. Dad is a High School science teacher and the whole family is off for their summer trip to Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas. It’s the first trip since Mom died of cancer two years prior.

Theo is not a fan of being outdoors in secluded places. Too many things to worry about like snakes and bears. He would much rather be working on his graphic novel Bob: The Boy with Perfect Memory. Dad has other ideas like living close to nature and one problem after another is just what Theo didn’t want. He does though become a hero of sorts.

But Dad’s real purpose for the trip is to introduce his “girlfriend” who meets them for the last two days of the vacation. Much too soon for both Theo and his sister who have never had the opportunity to address the grief trapped inside them. It all comes out in a perfect climatic way.

Thirty-eight chapters fly by thanks to the doses of humor and spot on voices. Mourning the loss of a loved one gets special treatment here and you’ll be thankful you got to spend time with the Ripley family.



  1. The characters are realistic in every way. No super heroes. Instead we have a regular family with all the believable emotions surfacing at every turn.
  2. The tale is so realistic it reminded me of my family trip to Yellowstone as a kid and may do the same for you and yours. I was glad to be with them but also tired of three sisters who knew more than me about everything. We thankfully made it home in one piece.
  3. Theo’s book is addressed throughout and you’ll soon figure out the connection to his real life. A great plotting device.
  4. The theme of a family dealing with loss is covered in a heartfelt way. The Ripley family still has a long way to go to heal but by book’s end you fell they are going to get there.
  5. Road trip books are the best summer treat. I also love the cover, especially when you see a full panel of back and front:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from Cliff Burke’s author web site)

Cliff Burke grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. He worked as a house painter, a parking lot attendant, and a sign-twirling dancing banana before graduating from the College of William and Mary. For the past ten years, he has taught reading and writing in China, Hong Kong, and Texas. Currently, he teaches writing and humanities at a middle school in the San Francisco Bay Area. An Occasionally Happy Family is his first novel.

Cliff is represented by Jim McCarthy at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret.

You can follow Cliff on Instagram or Goodreads.


Comments are welcome below!

About Greg Pattridge

Climbing another mountain...always striving to reach the next peak in my life and career.
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  1. Danielle Hammelef says:

    I agree–road trip books are fun to read, especially now that I still don’t feel safe taking a vacation. This book is on my wishlist! Thanks for posting about it today.

  2. Great review. I especially liked the last “five more things too like about . . .” The whole review gave me a good feel for the book.

  3. Love the cover! This sounds like a delightful end-of-the summer read! What you shared brought back many memories of our family camping trips to the national parks every summer. I enjoyed some, but like Theo I didn’t like snakes/lizzards or bears underneath my pull-out camping bed at night. Preferred a hotel at 13 with a swimming pool.

  4. I am also intrigued by that cover! Fun placement of the ISBN. I will have to find a copy of this book now. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Completely Full Bookshelf says:

    I remember Natalie Aguirre interviewed the author of this book, and it really does sound excellent! It sounds like a great mix of deeper themes and humor, and the sibling bickering sounds quite realistic for a road-trip! The cover is also great as well—there’s so many details, and I love how they placed the barcode as the car license plate. Thanks so much for the great review!

  6. This one is very high on my TBR list. I hope I can get my hands on a copy soon. It sounds terrific. Your review made me put some stars by the title. Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. K.A. Cummins says:

    That’s an awesome cover! There does seem to be fewer books with male protagonists for MG. Or maybe they’re harder to find? Either way, so glad you shared this!

  8. I loved this book as well! So fantastic!

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