BOOK REVIEW / The shade. The birds. The cows.

Danger Zones by Sally Beauman Bantam, pounds 15.99; Victoria Coren reads an epic tale of post-traumatic stress and stunned rabbits

At some point during the Joan Collins court case, it was decided that the blockbuster fad was finished. Fat novels about thin jetsetters were an Eighties phenomenon: time for them to join Soft Cell and shoulder- pads in the retirement home. Well, here we have an old lady determined to zip herself into a Nineties costume and assert her right to live. Casting off the old baubles of designer names and Chasen's dinners, she bedecks herself with Ecstasy, Bosnia and techno, and trips out to join the party.

Danger Zones is a sequel of sorts to Beauman's Lovers and Liars. Its journalist heroine, Gini Hunter, is back, suffering a bit of post-traumatic stress after covering the war in Sarajevo, but rejuvenated by the excitement of a new story involving a girl kidnapped by a villain called Star who (more rewarding than most villains) feeds her party drugs and takes her to Paris. Hot on his trail are Gini, Lindsay Drummond - fashion editor of the Correspondent - and the gorgeous, yet impenetrable Rowland McGuire, features editor. Quite who is deciding what goes in the paper while its editorial staff are bonking each other in Paris is never made clear, but they certainly go home with a scoop.

Journalists are a popular choice of hero for the English blockbuster- writer, probably because we have no film industry. Unlike Splash, last year's masterpiece from Eve Pollard, Val Corbett and Joyce Hopkirk, Danger Zones doesn't show much of the actual newspaper business. Nevertheless, we know they are journalists because they speak in businesslike staccato: "I need a drink. You need a drink. And food," says Rowland. Gini, dismissing a lover, plans to be "Brittle. Dismissive, Light, Maybe a little cheap." This begins to make its own music after a while: "Poor Cassandra, Mina, Gini." Yellow polka-dot bikini.

Beauman clearly feels a little uncertain about the health of the traditional blockbuster, and mixes in plenty of other genres to keep everybody happy. Floating in this miscellaneous brew are chunks of Mills & Boon heart-fluttering, Irvine Welsh drugs gore, Jackie Collins city-hopping, Joanna Trollope pastoral ("The shade. The birds. The cows''). Ms Trollope's favourite brand of stove gets several mentions: where the Eighties novelist name- checked Balenciaga, in the Nineties we make do with just the Aga.

Rowland, too, is a heart-throb for everybody. He reads Proust in French and has "a starred first from Balliol" - a degree so high that it doesn't even exist, not at Balliol anyway. He is taciturn and "unreadable" (brave word, that) like Mr Rochester, and he is also - for anyone who thinks Proust is a bit poncey - an Irish farmer's son who can "break a rabbit's neck with one deft blow". What a great life the reader can dream of sharing: long silences broken only by learned quotes and the occasional squeak of a bunny.

Don't be fooled, by the way, by the enticing cover photo of a topless blonde in PVC trousers: there is only one sex scene in the whole book. And thank God for that, because Gini is an exasperating creature in the sack, constantly emitting low moans and sighs. In fact, she is highly irritating all the time, though perhaps I am blinkered by jealousy of her genetic advantages as an interviewer: faced with Gini's "astonishingly sexy mouth and sweet, trusting grey eyes [Mitchell] felt a sudden lurching need to confide in this woman". It was never so easy for Jean Rook.

Lindsay, the single mum with stretch marks, is a far livelier character, but unfortunately she disappears for about 200 pages. When she turns up again the book gets quite funny, merrily describing her attempts to woo Rowland with some boned-up theories about Eisenstein. The last couple of chapters offer a glimpse of the book that might have been - a breezy, ironic and suddenly subtle story about characters one can actually believe in. No reader, however snobbish, can dismiss a book that is genuinely funny. In a world where all genres were equally respected, Jilly Cooper would be as great a novelist as Proust.

Until the last chapters, however, the only laughs to be had in Danger Zones are at its expense. Nevertheless, for the cruel reader these laughs are frequent, and should not be underestimated.

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