June 26, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Beach books about beaches are, forgive us, the “hottest” thing going in summer lit—but they’ve taken a shockingly genteel turn of late. Where are the sharks? The sunburns? The sous-boardwalk sex?

Nope, a mildly alcoholic narrator is as naughty as it gets in Anne Rivers Siddons’ Low Country (HarperCollins, $25), the soggy, horsey, sure-to-be-best-selling tale of a Southern dowager’s fight to save her adored grandpapa’s island from development by—heads up, here’s the conflict!—her equally adored husband’s struggling real estate concern. Run for the hills.

Or the Hamptons, which are enjoying particularly close scrutiny this season. Of the two fresh-pressed regional histories, Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons (Little Brown, $26.95) is by far the more satisfyingly insiderish, with Wainscott resident and Calvin Klein biographer Steven Gaines affixing himself like wallpaper to the fabled manses, the snippy and subtle class conflicts, the loaded-people bloat of this snooty strip of surf. (It is, as he understates, “not a welcoming place for the uninitiated or uninvited.”) But Hamptons Babylon: Life Among the Super-Rich on America’s Riviera (Birch Lane, $22.50) is by far the more satisfyingly trashy, with British-born Peter Fearon (of Buckingham Babylon) descending fast into Robin Leach breathlessness as he ticks off the region’s long-running roster of dissolute celebrities (Marilyn Monroe, Lee Radziwill), wayward artists (Jackson Pollock, Truman Capote, John Steinbeck), and spooky criminals (serial killer Joel Rifkin, serial rapist Scott Carroll, and one bored, wealthy couple who conducted sexual “experiments” on unwitting male college students). Is it any wonder the old Soviet Union had nukes specially trained on the area?

Still, if you delight in the rich patter of names dropping, add Gin Lane: A Novel of Southampton, by James Brady (St. Martin’s, $22.95), to the stack; the only characters that aren’t lifted shamelessly from gossip columns, The Thin Man, and Tender Is the Night (itself worthy meta-beach reading) have names like “Nipper,” “Fruity,” or “Slim”—good fun. Slightly less fun is Philip R. Craig’s boilerplate mystery A Shoot on Martha’s Vineyard (Scribner, $22), but since it’s the ninth in a series, perhaps one needs to have read the previous eight to get into the spirit. For a shorter cut to shore, try The Lifeguard (Picador, $12), Mary Morris’ 10 spare, clean-cut stories of saltwater and remembrance; freshwater fans can tackle Eleanor Lipman’s The Inn at Lake Devine (Random House, $23.95), a Jane Austen-tinged tale about love and anti-Semitism in Vermont.

As for the West Coast, it would appear Californians are too absorbed in turning out Baywatch episodes to establish much of a beach-tome tradition, at least this year. The lone example washing up on these shores is a book of photographs by the late celebrity dentist (and onetime Cary Grant stunt double) Don James called Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942 (Chronicle, $24.95): sepia snapshots of innocent, gorgeous hedonism. If that sounds nice—and of course it does—immerse yourself fully in Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker’s The Beach (Viking, $25.95), a “history of paradise on earth” that’s nothing if not comprehensive, sailing confidently from beachdom’s origins 4 billion years ago, to its commercial and salubrious heyday, to its present erosion. “Ecologically, demographically, and therapeutically,” write the authors of Patio Daddy-O, “the beach may appear to have gone to hell…yet…the beach continues to be a powerful and persistently democratic magnet…[t]he search for the perfect beach continues.”

Still looking? Consult Dr. Beach—a.k.a. seashore researcher Stephen P. Leatherman. Singled out by Oprah for having one of the best jobs in the country, Leatherman did what any sensible man would do in that situation: parlayed his experience into a book. America’s Best Beaches (Leatherman, $17.95) covers water turbidity, sand quality, algae density…variables you never knew factored into seaside quality.

Just don’t expect him to tell you where the boys are.

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