It finally rained. That and a public holiday make a perfect reading day. First up was Joan Didion's 1970 novel Play it as it lays . Having read her A Year of Magical Thinking recently , I had picked up a collection of her essays and this novel. Though set in the Hollywood of the 60s, it is perhaps less about the Californian sunshine than the somewhat toxic and barren Nevada and Las Vegas - the venom of rattlesnakes, the nothingness of chance on the game table, and disrupted childhoods (abortions, a child in hospital, mothers who die in the desert). Of course, there's drugs, alcohol, parties, loveless sex, depression, divorces, expired careers and suicide. All of this would be too much to read if not for the elliptical, episodic structure - the short, brutal bursts, minimising yet intensifying the readers' contact with Maria Wyeth, our Virgilian guide into this hell, but not quite. It is readable also because it is so distant from our tropical island - in time and space.