When I saw author Cliff Burke’s name on the cover of MY NOT-SO-GREAT FRENCH ESCAPE, I hoped for a story just as good as his debut novel, AN OCCASIONALLY HAPPY FAMILY reviewed here in 2021.

It didn’t take me long to find out. I began reading this contemporary novel one evening and couldn’t put it down. The heartwarming and at times heart wrenching tale turned out to be even better than Mr. Burke’s first.

The plot is unique:

Rylan O’Hare always had a best friend until Wilder decided it was time to move onto the cool kids. Wilder’s family is ultra rich, living in a huge house while Rylan and his mom live together in a much smaller home.

But then Wilder invites Rylan on an all-expenses paid trip to France for a summer camp experience at a farm. The opportunity is too good to pass up for Rylan and before leaving on the trip he begins to reconnect with Wilder.

Something else unexpected happens: Rylan’s father who disappeared when Rylan was 3 happens to live in France and he’d like to reconnect with his son.

Rylan is not so sure about seeing his dad but finally makes a decision he thinks is right. Once Rylan arrives at the camp there are goats to milk, a new language to learn, swarms of bees, and pigeon poop. Unfortunately, Wilder ditches him again in favor of the cool French kids. Rylan finds comfort in his own group that includes a German boy named Martin, Annie from Hong Kong, and Swiss born Lia who is the youngest.

There’s much more to the story I won’t ruin with spoilers. What I can share are the two components that endeared me to the plot. I’ve stayed in touch with three students who are now adults. Each of their dads also left before their sons reached school age and never contacted them again. Every moment of Rylan’s path reminded me of time spent actively listening to these three boys who struggled with the same emotions. It takes a village as they say. Thankfully all three are doing well in their lives.

The other connection was with German boy, Martin. He is an exact copy (including his name) of a boy I hosted in an exchange program. They talked and acted the same way. Thanks for bringing back the memories.

If you want an often funny and deeply moving story plan on spending some time with Rylan. One of my favorites so far in 2023.



  1. Rylan’s first person narration is spot on. He’s compassionate, opinionated at times, and the epitome of a almost 13-year-old boy.
  2. Pierre is their French host on the farm. He’s a memorable adult character who is an endearing part of the story. He’d make a great dad.
  3. The voice mail Rylan sends to his mom.
  4. You learn about organic farming. I’ll be trying some of these tips in my own home garden.
  5. I have a book to share with all those kids who long to see a new light in their broken parent relationships.

About the Author

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. His first novel, An Occasionally Happy Family, was a 2022 Spirit of Texas Book and was selected for several state reading lists. His latest novel, My Not-So-Great French Escape, will be released in March 2023.

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

You can follow Cliff on Instagram or Goodreads, and be sure to visit his author website.



About Greg Pattridge

Climbing another mountain...always striving to reach the next peak in my life and career.
This entry was posted in Middle Grade Book Reviews, New Release and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. petespringerauthor says:

    I’m unsure if I read An Occasionally Happy Family based on your recommendation or one of the other reviewers you feature, but I loved that book. Burke has a great sense of humor and captured the parent/child relationship perfectly. Glad to know he’s got another one.

  2. What a cool connection you have to the story. This must be a page-turner if you read it in one sitting. Thanks for sharing it this week.

  3. Brenda says:

    How neat that you made such a valuable connection to the characters and story plot. Always enjoy finding a new to me author and this sounds wonderful. Happy MMGM

  4. This sounds like a heart-breaker, but has so many intriguing elements! An organic farm camp in France…sign me up. (Plus I love friendship stories.)

  5. I loved how you shared some of your own personal experiences with the story. Never know how an absentee father is going to affect a boy. And I would love to spend time on an organic farm. Great addition to the story. This sounds like a fascinating read. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Max @ Completely Full Bookshelf says:

    I think one of my favorite things about MG fiction is how it can combine all these separate themes and images and characters and settings into a single coherent and delightful story, and it sounds like this is one of those books that knocks that task out of the park! I love that you raced through it in one evening and it brought back so many memories of working with different students with their own experiences. Thanks so much for the thoughtful review, Greg!

  7. I read An Occasionally Happy Family because of your recommendation and loved it. I think I will have to hunt down a copy of this book too. It sounds great. I didn’t know you had been an exchange host. We did that six times. One of our kids is coming to visit this summer from Homburg to pick up her son from his exchange program. Can’t wait. Thanks for your review.

  8. Sounds a great story! I know kids who have friends like Wilder… Poor Rylan! I hope things work out for him in France!

  9. carolbaldwin says:

    This sounds wonderful. I wish my grandson (who is on his phone more than reads…) would read it. It sounds like it could help him.

  10. A summer in France? Sign me up! Thanks for sharing, Greg!

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