When the Killing’s Done (by T.C. Boyle, $27, Viking, Feb. 2011): With his vividly eccentric style intact, T.C. Boyle embarks on a fictionalized retelling of the struggle over the fate of California’s Channel Islands. Pitting the National Park Service against animal-rights activists in a tale of gunslinging and invasive species in the New West, he presents diverse perspectives on the morality of meddling with nature. He’s well-versed in the region’s cultural and natural histories, and endows this modern-day epic with meticulous details from the lives of its characters — old-time shepherds, federal biologists, and dreadlocked PETA fans — to create a complex, compelling portrait of the havoc we wreak without assigning blame. Readers are offered the opportunity to judge for themselves.
Caribou Island (by David Vann, $25, Harper, Jan. 2011): Set on Alaska’s forebodingly mercurial Kenai Peninsula, Vann’s depiction of a marriage disintegrating as a husband and wife attempt to build a life in the wilderness is engagingly dark. The discrepancies between expectation and reality loom as Gary and Irene become increasingly isolated, and the harsh landscape serves as a mirror for a family’s long-simmering discontent, turning characters inside out to expose the source of each unhappiness, but offering no apparent resolution to the perils of internal wilderness.