Krokos, Dan. The Planet Thieves.
21 May 2013, Starscape.
Mason lives on the USS Egypt with his sister Susan as an ESC Cadet after the death of his parents. When Tremists (an alien race hostile to humans) attack the ship, the captain is killed, his sister is taken hostage, and Commander Lockwood is so gravely injured that he puts Mason in charge. Tom, the captain's son, is a bit put out, but knows that the cadets must take back the ship if there is any hope of defeating the Tremists. They have been fighting with the ESC over the habitable planet Nori-Blue. When they board the Egypt, their goal is to steal a large "gate" which collapses space and makes travel faster. Once they get the gate, they use it to transport Earth nearer to their planet! Mason realizes that his friend Merrin is actually a Tremist when the Tremist King insists that she's his daughter... and after he sees under the Tremist uniform and realizes that Merrin's violet colored hair and eyes do make her look just like them. A hostage exchange (Susan for Merrin) is arranged, to be conducted on the neutral planet of Nori-Blue. Once there, the cadets realize that Nori-Blue, thought to be uninhabited, is not. Secrets about the past of both the humans and Tremists are revealed. The ending is full of lots of twists, and I don't want to ruin the suspense!
Strengths: This is classic, action-packed science fiction. Travel around in space, deal with hostile aliens, travel to new planets where there are even more dangers, figure out that the aliens are not that different from us. Have cool weapons, used judiciously, and add children in charge-- awesome! There is even a jet pack at one point. Still not understanding how it's 2013, phones can send pictures, and I STILL don't have a jet pack!
Weaknesses: Hmmm... can't think of much. Of course it stretches credulity to have the cadets in charge of the ship, but when everyone else is captured or disabled, what can you do?
If you want more recommendations on great books for boys, head on over to Boys Rule Boys Read! Iron Guy Carl is a fantastic public librarian, not to mention a big Rick Riordan fan, and does great work with getting books to boys. One of his former coworkers, Library Ninja Bill, has a blog as well, Boys Rock, Boys Read!!! If one or the other of them happens to have an interview with a certain middle grade librarian who doesn't have a cool blog name, I mention it only for shameless self promotion!