Mars Evacuees, by Sophia McDougall (Egmont, March 2014 in the UK, Feb 2015 in the US), for giving me that chance!
In a nutshell--aliens (who are invisible) have come to earth, settled at the poles, and reversed global warming with a vengeance, plunging earth into an ice age with the strange net they have cast over our atmosphere, that blocks the sun's light. Earth's forces are fighting back, but it's not going well....and so a group of the best, brightest, and most well-connected kids on earth are evacuated to Mars, which has been terraformed so that there's some oxygen.....just not quite enough for it to be Home. They are going to be trained to be the next generation of soldiers in the war against the aliens being fought over earth. One of these kids is English girl Alice Dare, whose mom is one of the most legendary pilots/fighters of invisible alien spacecraft going! Alice would rather have a life untroubled by aliens with both parents at hand, but Mars it is.....
On the way there she finds herself becoming friends with Josephine--super smart, super unhappy about being forced into the military, weird, black, blunt, and well-equipped with duct tape. And she doesn't make friends with the rascal of the bunch, an Australian boy named Carl, but they become allies regardless.... And on Mars she find herself at the mercy of not just military instructors, but determined robot instructors (including the aforementioned goldfish, which flies around like a helium shark balloon, and also a very creepy Teddy Bear Robot), who take their mission to Educate very seriously indeed (they provide pleasing comic relief).
And even though the whole business of things not going well (which involves encounters with hostile aliens, cliff hanger adventures, malfunctioning robots, and a distinct lack of helpful adults) is all very fun, interesting and exciting, just as interesting to me were the interactions among the main characters, and Alice herself as a character who's not particular smart or gifted, but who manages to keep (more or less) calm, helping everyone carry on.
That being said, and I hope having piqued your interest, I have to warn you all that the rest of this review is somewhat spoliery, and to share my main issue with the book, I have to share the main arc of the plot.
So one day Alice and the other kids wake up to find that all the grownups are gone, and they are left with their robot instructors and enough food and oxygen for a while and no way back to earth, and no way to communicate in any meaningful way with any grownups in the galaxy, and basically Lord of the Flies happens and my credulity was stretched....
So I was glad when Alice and Josephine and Carl and Carl's brother Noel (a sweet child) and the robot goldfish head out into the Martian wilderness to trek to the nearest science base....I find harsh survival journey stories more appealing than kids turning on each other.....and it all got very tense (thank goodness for Joephine's duct tape!) and it got especially tense when they find (really big spoiler alert )
a crashed alien ship with a survivor, who turns out to be an alien about their own age. And although the Earth kids quickly duct tape the alien up, they end up becoming friends and for the first time there is actually real dialogue between earthling and aliens and cross-cultural understanding is assayed not unsuccessfully! And then the real threat happens, the thing that drove the aliens to earth to begin with, and Mars is in great danger not to mention the four kids (five if you count the alien) who seem doomed.....but they aren't doomed because they are smart and because one of their travel companions is a robot goldfish and all ends happily. (The sort of happy where Alice gets her parents back and Josephine doesn't have to join the military and earth is saved and not everyone is happy about the aliens but there they are).
And this leads to my one negative reaction-- it was kind of too easy a happy ending vz alien earth relations--- McDougall doesn't gloss over the fact that aliens killed earthlings and vice versa, but the aliens never seem as sorry as I think they should be for deciding that because they needed earth they were justified in taking it over. It is true that facing a mutual threat that could annihilate everyone is a really good joiner, but it lacks complexity. This is not necessarily an issue in a middle grade book, but it does keep me from urging grown-up readers of sci fi to try this one.
Except, of course, for grown-up readers with tastes similar to mine, who will enjoy this combination military boarding school/alien conflict/character driven story very much indeed!
give this one to kids who liked The Roar, by Emma Clayton, Ambassador by William Alexander, and Space Case, by Stuart Gibbs, and also to any kid who likes reading about other smart kids coping in difficult circs. without grownups! Especially give it to any kid who's interested in terraforming--this part of the book was very satisfying to the science geek in me!