As Leaves are Prey to Wind by John F. McGowan

John F. McGowan’s novel, As Leaves Are Prey to Wind (Grace O’Malley, 512 pp., $24.99, paper), looks at one Australian soldier’s experiences in the Vietnam War.

The novel’s protagonist, Brian Fronton, volunteers for the Australian Army. As he and two buddies are about to fly off to Vietnam, his father tells him, “Be a man son, like your uncles, be strong and take care.” He then shakes hands with his typically unemotional dad who says, “Come on son, man up for Christ’s sake, give me a firm handshake, you’re not holding a limp dick in your hand. are you?”

This is one of those novels that pretty well drops you right into the action. The young men arrive in Vietnam on page eight of the is 500-plus page book, flying into Tan Son Nhut on a QANTAS Boeing 707 commercial jet. They are then flown to Nui Dat in a C-130. The big plane lands, slows, turns around, and the men jump out the back while the plane begins rolling for takeoff.

Fronton decides to write regularly in a journal. He hopes to use the material later to help him become a “great novelist.” He’s assigned to a relatively safe base camp, but his job as a radio operator means he frequently goes out on patrol. After a few weeks, he writes, “My life is an adventure” in his journal. One night a buddy of his says, “I bet 99 out of every 100 Gooks are no different from me. Just poor dumb pricks in the hands of fanatic wankers.”

At one point he is dropped into the jungle to replace an injured signaler and is welcomed to what he’s told is the real war. But it’s not the one with the Viet Cong. Instead, it’s about being “tired, sore, wet and feckin miserable.” The mission is pretty single-minded: Seek out the enemy, track them, hunt them down, and kill them.

After talking with buddies about Australia’s World War I experience at Gallipoli, followed up with reading some Kipling, he notes to himself: “I had never thought about my possible death in war, but suddenly I am afraid. I do not want to die because Australia needs to keep trade relations with America.”

McGowan

On another patrol he’s told again that the real war is not the one with the “Feckin Gooks,” but the one with spiders, carnivorous ants, poisonous snakes, scorpions, and tigers. And leeches. Soldiers around him stop removing leeches from their bodies knowing they’ll eventually drop off.

Fronton writes in his journal that actual combat is not as bad on the nerves as dreading the constant possibility of contact.

“It’s the knowledge,” he writes, “that at any moment the world around you could erupt into death and destruction.”

The novel’s title, As Leaves Are Prey to Wind, refers to how little control humans have over what happens in our lives. That sense of helplessness becomes even more vivid during times of war. It is well expressed by John F. McGowan—who served in Vietnam with the Third Battalion Royal Australian Regiment—in this solid Vietnam War novel.

McGowan’s website is johnfmcgowan.com

–Bill McCloud

War Crimes by Martin Robert Grossman

War Crimes (Koehler Books, 276 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper, $5.03, Kindle) is Martin Robert Grossman’s second mystery novel featuring Jerry Andrews, a Vietnam veteran and recently retired Los Angeles Police Department detective. The former Green Beret is living in a peaceful village in northern Mexico when he gets a call from an old Army buddy, Jon Compton, a retired Texas Ranger. Compton asks Andrews to help him resolve an issue he’s taken on.

Seabrook, Texas, is a small fishing town near Houston. In the mid-1970s Vietnamese shrimpers who fled their homeland ended up working the coastal waters there. Feelings of prejudice, combined with fears of competition, led some locals to attack the newcomers and burn their boats. There also was at least one murder, and the influx of Vietnamese led to the appearance of a revitalized Ku Klux Klan.

Things calmed down and nearly two decades went by. But now the body of a Vietnamese male is discovered. He had been shot in the hard and had his throat cut. A playing card–an ace of spades with the Grim Reaper holding a scythe—was found on the body. Former Ranger Compton volunteers to help investigate. Then, following a second similar murder, he decides to ask his old buddy Jerry Andrews to join him.

Soon there’s a third victim, with mutilation added to it, and Compton tells Andrews they need to quickly solve these new murders “under the radar” before the situation causes a new race riot. But racist skinheads are already beginning to gather in town and a reporter for the local newspaper hopes to break the story wide open. After a fourth murder they know they’re after “a deranged serial killer” who is very likely a Vietnam War veteran.

There’s a broad cast of characters in this story, many with military backgrounds. There’s a nearby VA hospital and a private retreat set up for veterans. The founder of the latter is driven by a desire to slow down the numbers of brave men fought in the Vietnam War only to end up being killed by “the lifestyle” they’ve “been forced into by an ungrateful nation.”

Martin Grossman

The direct connection between War Crimes and Grossman’s previous novel, Club Saigon, in addition to the character of Jerry Andrews, is the illicit movement of cocaine and heroin between Vietnamese-American communities. In both novels the author frequently refers to Vietnamese people as “Orientals.” That term today is outdated, but at least its use is consistent throughout the two books.

After reading War Crimes and Club Saigon you could end up believing that every American who served in Vietnam left the war zone as damaged goods. Some did, but most didn’t. Remember that as you read these novels in which memories of the war eventually pour out in extremely violent fashion.

Grossman’s website is martinrobertgrossman.com

–Bill McCloud

Boot by Charles L. Templeton

Charles Templeton flew more than 150 missions as a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter crew chief in the Vietnam War from 1968-69. His book, Boot: A Sorta Novel of Vietnam (S. Dogood Books, 317 pp. $14.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is made up of 37 short, disconnected chapters. The chapter titles tend to be wacky and whimsical. For example: “The Artists of Dong Ho,” “Panty Porn,” “Ly Cu Chi,” “Our Body of Hue,” “On the Road to Shambala,” “The Wisdom of Wombats,” “Operation Corduroy Peach,” “Dien Cai Dau,” and “Mystic Foxhole Yacht Club Bowl.”

All the chapters of this excellent book are well-written and interesting. Many are humorous; some are horrific and intensely graphic. The book is also sprinkled with bits of poetry by Vietnam War veteran Bill McCloud. Those poems are deftly presented to support the narrative.

Boot appears to be part memoir (it often seems as though it was written from notes Templeton took at the time) and part phantasmagorical novel. The protagonist is George Orwell Hill, or G.O. The book tell stories of G.O.’s life as a Marine in Vietnam, what he learns about the country and its people, and the impact his war experiences had on for life.

The author effectively develops believable and sympathetic characters, while simultaneously communicating the diversity of experiences and backgrounds of these characters who have been thrown together to work as a unit during a war.

Charles Templeton

I have read the chapters of this fine novel multiple times and what I am always left with is Charles Templeton’s clear intent to communicate an honest, authentic picture of the Vietnam War Marine Corps experience, as well as the complexity of factors specific to the Vietnam War, and the consequences of war that last far beyond its supposed end.

I enjoyed reading all 37 chapters of this book (as well as the prologue and epilogue) and wish there were more.

I recommend Boot to those looking for a well-written, unique, and interesting literary look at one man’s tour of duty in the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

The author’s website is charlestempleton.com

–David Willson

One Degree by Gus Kappler

Gus Kappler’s One Degree: An Historical Medical Mystery (BookBaby, 262 pp. $13.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a mix of fact and fiction with a strong Vietnam War theme. Dr. Kappler did a tour of duty in the Vietnam War as an Army trauma surgeon at the 85th Evacuation Hospital in Phu Bai in 1970-71.

In this novel, after Pfc. Richard Burrows is wounded, he is treated at a field hospital in Saigon, then medevaced to Japan, and later sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. After a few months at Walter Reed Burrows seems to be improving, but then suddenly takes a turn for the worse and is in danger of losing both his legs. He then dies of cardiac arrest. When he does, one of his doctors wonders, “What did we miss?”

A lab technician at Walter Reed, Matt Rogowicz, blames himself for Burrows’ post-op death because of what happened a few weeks earlier. Rogowicz had examined a slide of Burrows’ blood and detected an abnormality in a white cell. But there were no reports in the medical literature about such a distortion in infection-fighting white blood cells. Rogowicz could not convince his superiors that this was something that required further investigation and then his patient died.

After leaving the military, Rogowicz becomes obsessed with the tragedy and decides to spend however long it takes to get to the bottom of it. He learns about two more seemingly similar deaths and cover-ups of the circumstances surrounding the deaths. He blames himself even more, and soon exhibits PTSD symptoms, as do others he interviews. There’s a question of whether exposure to Agent Orange could be an issue, and there is a rumor that a Vietnamese worker may have placed a Russian-made toxin in the food in American mess halls.

Then China comes into the picture and things really pick up. There’s a possible connection to Big Pharma, a pharmaceutical conglomerate that had, Kappler writes, “allied with giants in other industries to create and sustain a consortium of players that, in the real sense of the word, ruled the world economically and politically.” This “ruling class” decided to try to control the most powerful man in the world and began grooming a corrupt U.S. senator for a run at the U.S. presidency.

As Rogowicz’s mission drags on for years, it becomes a life-changing experience. He’s not going to stop until he gets this particular monkey off his back. He joins with a handful of other Vietnam War veterans who bring in others who have experience with the mystery disease.

Dr. Kappler, fourth from left, with other 85th Evac surgeons in Chu Lai

Kappler’s dialogue does not come off as natural. He often uses what his characters say as a way of providing information for the reader as characters spit out facts. The brief section of the book that takes place in Vietnam includes several tropes. The VC, for example, turn Claymore mines around to face the GIs; there is a “newbie” First Lieutenant; and pilots survive “several crashes.”

Overall, though, the medical mystery part of this hybrid novel kept me engaged.

Kappler’s website is guskappler.com

–Bill McCloud

Club Saigon by Martin Robert Grossman

Martin Robert Grossman’s Club Saigon (Koehler Books, 412 pp. $30.94, hardcover; $21.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a brutally violent murder mystery set in Los Angeles nearly two decades after the end of the Vietnam War. The story line goes back and forth between late-sixties South Vietnam and early-nineties L.A. This is ingeniously represented by the fact that a bar in Pleiku and one in L.A. both share the name, Club Saigon.

The story begins in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam early 1968 when a Special Forces compound is overrun by forces of the North Vietnamese Army. Grossman—who served in the Green Berets himself—writes that six good men died on that night while back home “the hippies were burning the flag.”

The next thing we know it’s twenty-two years later and Jerry Andrews is a detective with the LAPD. He left the Army after three tours in the Vietnam War and is now basically killing time while he waits for his retirement in three years.

He’s investigating the murder of a Vietnamese man in an alley in Little Saigon, a one-square mile area in the City of Angels. One of the dead man’s his ears had been removed by his assailant. That bit of information causes Andrews to recall an incident from his time in Nam.

Andrews lives in a one-room efficiency apartment. His “last wife” had left him, he hasn’t attended church in over ten years, and he spends a great deal of his time at a cop bar called 44 Magnum. Sometimes he has nightmares based on his combat experiences in the Ia Drang Valley. He also suffers from migraine headaches, which are coming more frequently and more painfully.

Additional dead bodies begin showing up in the alleys of Little Saigon. All Vietnamese, each missing an ear. Andrews somehow doesn’t consider the possibility that there’s a serial killer on the loose until after the sixth death. This is also a guy who seems surprised to walk into a men’s room in a bar and notice that it “smelled like piss.”

As he continues his investigation, Andrews comes across evidence that could involve a few of his Special Forces buddies—guys he’s had no contact with since the war. Then one of them becomes his main suspect. There’s a problem though: the man has been dead for years.

Martin Robert Grossman

Andrews and his buddies don’t seem to be a very enlightened bunch. They’ve apparently always harbored prejudice against Vietnamese. As Andrews puts it: he’s still “slightly racist when it came to Vietnamese.”

During the war Andrews and company spoke of “ARVN assholes” and “fucking farmers,” and were known to urinate on dead enermy bodies. More than twenty years later they wonder why Vietnamese refugees in America can’t “learn proper English,” and think of them as people who typically “eat dog meat.”

Grossman’s novel explores some interesting concepts such as astral projection, dreamscapes, shapeshifters, and “counting coup.” As brutally told as this story is, it’s light reading, falling into the area of testosterone-driven revenge fantasy.

Grossman’s website is martinrobertgrossman.com

–Bill McCloud

The Wars Among the Paines by John M. Millar

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The Wars Among the Paines (KoehlerBooks, 616 pp., $39.95, hardcover; $26.95, paper; $7.99, e book) is a work of historical fiction by John M. Millar, who served as a first lieutenant with the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1968-69. The novel looks at the effects that fifty-five years of war (1918-1973) had on the nation as seen through the eyes of one family, the Paines. They are proud citizen-soldiers who served when called to wars. They haven’t missed one, reporting for duty in World Wars I and II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

The main character, Treat Paine II, refers to his younger sister as “the martyr,” while his older brother is “the prick,” his mother “a drunk” and his father “a bastard.” For decades the family has famously owned several non-union munitions plants. Paine says his family seemed to have it all, yet ended up being dysfunctional, and he wonders how much the pressure of family members fighting in four wars contributed to that.

Within the first few pages we learn that Treat’s brother was killed in Vietnam in 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley and his sister was a leader in the antiwar movement who died by carrying a hunger-strike to its fatal conclusion. After that, his mother went into a catatonic state from which she never recovered. His father, a World War II veteran, would die from a heart attack.

A grandfather survived World War I and the 1918-19 flu pandemic. An uncle was killed in Korea. “We were a family that answered our country’s call every time,” Paine says, “right or wrong.” He tells the stories of his relatives by using journals each kept during their time in service.

After Treat Paine graduates from college in 1966 he volunteers for the Army because he wants to fight in the Vietnam War. Why? Not because of his brother’s death there but because, as he says, he “worshiped Hemingway.” His “purpose for going was complicated by my desire to be a famous writer. I knew that, if I did not go to Vietnam, I would not have the grist to create meaningful stories.”

He volunteers for Army Officer Candidate School and arrives in Vietnam in early 1968. He left the war after serving two tours, with a promise to himself that his writing would never glorify the things he witnessed there.

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John Millar

In preparing to write the historical parts of this novel Millar used an impressive amount of reference materials that are listed on three pages at the back of the book. For the ficttion parts we get a ton of details about Paine’s school years—all of them: subjects he studied, classes he took, his thoughts about his instructors, and final grades he made.

The fact that Millar makes those parts nearly as interesting as military combat shows what skills he has as a writer.

Considering a nation’s history by looking at the personal history of generations in one family is not a new idea. But John Millar has done it as well as anyone.

The book’s website is thewarsamongthepaines.com

–Bill McCloud

Snow in Vietnam by Amy M. Le

Snow in Vietnam (Mercury West Publishing, 229 pp. $26.99, hardcover; 16.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a debut novel by Amy M. Le. The author was born in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States at the age of five. She now considers both the Pacific Northwest and Oklahoma to be her homes. 

I love the title, even if it is somewhat gimmicky. I also loved the novel. “Snow” is the name of the main character, a woman who is the youngest of seven children. Within the family she is called “Eight” because her parents are “One.” In May 1973 she is a 34-year-old virgin living with her family in Vinh Binh Province in the Mekong Delta, and is about to marry a Vietnamese man she hardly knows. She’s a former schoolteacher who now works for a bank. The Paris Peace Treaty has been signed, bringing hope that normalcy will come to Vietnam.

She marries and gives birth to a daughter a year later. Shortly afterward she learns that her husband has been living another life with another woman. It’s a deceit that Snow refers to as “a Nixonian blow.” With her life falling apart, she strikes out with her daughter in a bold move of independence. Before long, though, she returns to the home of her parents and siblings.

By early 1975 communist troops, which Le refers to as the “northern army,” are moving on Saigon and pretty quickly the city falls. As the communists gain control over all of the former South Vietnam western books and clothes are burned and families are encouraged to spy on their neighbors. By the end of 1976 Snow has missed three opportunities to escape this oppressive society—in which, she notes, even the sunlight seems to shine differently—and flee to the U.S.A. She saves money for years to try to buy freedom for herself and her young daughter.

But time marches on. Her child seems to be suffering from a serious heart condition. There are fears of a war with Cambodia and China. She wants to be able to give her daughter the life that she used to dream of for herself. With 1977 coming to a close, any possible escape still seems “light years away.”

Then in early 1979 she seizes what may be her last opportunity and faces the dangers involved in getting herself, her daughter, and a nephew onto a small fishing boat with forty other people. There’s no turning back as the boat sails into the South China Sea.

The final chapters continue Snow’s story, telling of storms, pirates, and many months in Indonesia before receiving the news she has waited years to hear.

This novel is dedicated to “the boat people of Vietnam and the refugees who left Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.” Le wrote it as a tribute to her late mother’s bravery and selflessness.

Amy Le should be pleased with her work and know that her mother’s memory has been well served.

The author’s website is amy-m-le.com

–Bill McCloud

What the F*** Was That All About? By Tom Barber

What the F*** Was That All About? (136 pp. A15 Publishing. $9.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is the unfortunate title of a short novel by Tom Barber aimed at helping veterans deal with demons they sometimes battle for decades after their military service has ended. I really liked this book, but believe it would be better served with a different, equally creative title. This one is an attention-getter, but I fear it might cause some people to avoid the book.

Barber—who also is an artist specializing in fantasy and science fiction paintings—served as a U.S. Army medic during the Vietnam War.

The back cover tells us the story is going to be about a troubled veteran who is close to the edge of suicide until another vet shows him a better way. It also prepares us to deal with the concept of moral injury, in which a soul can be wounded when his or her basic understanding of right and wrong is blown away by war.

The main character, Eric, is a high-school art teacher in Boston who decides one day to join the Army because he is “searching for adventure” during the time of one of our most-recent wars. Looking back, he says he “turned out to be a half-decent warrior.” That phrase struck me because I think it’s how many of us regular guys feel after we’ve gone through Basic Training, advanced training, and a few months in a war zone–that we were “half-decent warriors.”

Eric receives a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. Once his military time is over, it’s not long before he has picked up three drunk-and-disorderly charges. Despite that, he gets his old teaching job back. But then flashbacks of his combat experiences begin to kick in. Eric goes through ten more years of drinking during which he loses his job and is divorced by his wife.

He reads somewhere that “if you’ve never really thought about suicide, you haven’t lived a full life.” So Eric takes this to the next step and decides that if you think about taking yourself out your life would then be complete—as long as you don’t actually do it. Talk about a Catch-22. This thinking leads him to decide to drink a beer for breakfast and visit Mitchell’s Place, a one-room veterans center, for some possible counseling.

Eric eventually begins to bond with Mitchell and conversations ensue over matters such as why conflict is so much a part of human history, the tenets of Buddhism, and even the possible role of ancient astronauts. No matter what the subject matter, Barber’s dialogue always seems natural and unforced. But these discussions fail to resolve one of Eric’s worst recurring flashbacks, which involves a child.

Before long Eric struggles to quit drinking, begins keeping a journal, and starts delivering pizza. Then come relapses. Then art therapy and meditation. The struggle to be well continues, as does the desire to get there.

Vet Center poster by Tom Barber

There are several illustrations by the author throughout the book and contact info in the back for Vet Centers throughout the U.S. This would be a great book to be placed in each one of those centers.

Tom Barber’s website is tombarberart.com

–Bill McCloud

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

The best literary novelists have the ability to conjure up worlds that most readers never have experienced, people them with complex, fully formed characters, and launch those characters into compelling narratives that keep you turning the pages. Elizabeth Wetmore has accomplished that rare and difficult feat in her brilliant first novel, Valentine (Harper, 320 pp. $26.99, hardcover and Kindle)

In it, Wetmore—an Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum—gives us an indelible portrait of the place where she was born and raised, the West Texas oil patch, centered on the hardscrabble town of Odessa. The action (and there’s plenty of it) begins on Valentine’s Day 1976 with the brutal rape of 14-year-old girl named Gloria Ramirez.

In the succeeding chapters Wetmore spins out the stories of seven women and girls whose lives become entwined following the arrest of the man who committed the crime. All of them—including the two main characters, Mary Rose Whitehead, a young mother who came to Gloria Ramirez’s aid, and Corrine Shephard, a recently widowed retired schoolteacher—come alive in Wetmore’s capable hands. So does the stark physical landscape of the oil patch and the day-to-day lives of the men, women, and children who live and work there.

Two of the book’s lesser but important characters are Vietnam War veterans: Gloria’s Uncle Victor, who did two tours in the war and is scraping out a living in the oil fields, and Jesse Belden, a down-on-his luck former Army tunnel rat barely surviving in Odessa. To Wetmore’s enormous credit, she does not portray them as stereotypical maladjusted Nam vets. Far from it. She gives us word portraits of both men as multidimensional human beings.

Victor is a humble, decent man who has adjusted as well as can be expected since he came home from the war. As she does with all of her characters, Wetmore beautifully illuminates the psyches of Victor and Jesse. Here, for example, is how she lets us know the main lesson Victor learned from his time in the war:

Of “all the things he learned during the war—that living to see another day is almost always a matter of stupid luck, that men who know they might die any minute can learn not to give a shit about who’s the All-Star and who’s the Mexican, or that heroism is most often small and accidental but it still means the world—the greatest lesson was this: nothing causes more suffering than vengeance.”

As for Jesse, he is not faring well in 1976. He suffers physically from hearing loss and emotionally from flashbacks to a horrific incident in a VC tunnel. That’s in addition to the vicious treatment the physically small man is subjected to by many of the denizens of the oil patch. This “small and frightened critter,” as Wetmore puts it in a particularly harrowing scene, is a simple, naïve, good man.

Wetmore even manages to include a bit of sly humor in the book, mainly in the form of corny jokes that mock the West Texas oil patch. Such as: “What the difference between a bucket of shit and Odessa? The bucket.”

In addition to Mary Rose and Corrine, the book’s third main character is an 11-year old girl named Debra Ann. The novel’s exciting and harrowing penultimate scene brings the troubled but good-hearted girl together with Corrine, Jesse, and Mary Rose in a heart-stopping encounter in the desert. It’s tour-de-force writing that would fit in a first-rate thriller. And it puts an exclamation point on this terrific novel.

The author’s website is elizabethwetmore.com

–Marc Leepson

The Hidden Key by David E. Grogan

David E. Grogan’s The Hidden Key (Camel Press, 250 pp. $15.95, paper) is the third book in his Steve Stilwell series of thrillers. Stilwell is an attorney who works for himself in Virginia. He previously served as a U.S. Navy attorney with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps–as did the author.

The action kicks off immediately as we learn that a member of the American military has smuggled an ancient clay-tablet out of Iraq and taken it back with him to the U.S. Something takes place in the very first chapter that lets you know that just about anything is likely to happen in this book. There’s more action in the first two chapters than in many entire books.

Stilwell, who is going through a divorce, has been out of the Navy for six years. Casey Pantel is a partner in his law office. She barely survived an Army helicopter crash. Phan Quốc Cường also works for him. He once saved Stilwell’s life. In return, Stillwell helped him and his family escape from Vietnam.

Stilwell meets with a wealthy client and we learn that an active black market in antiquities has been in place since the beginning of the Iraq War. Museums and historical sites have been looted for items that are solde to raise money for Al-Qaida. Before long, his client is dead.

The tablet falls into, then out of, Stilwell’s hands. It appears that it’s not an ordinary tablet from the distant past. There’s something unique and important about this tablet. The writing on it may be a key to an ancient map of Babylon, or even the prized map itself. Or a Babylonian map of the world. Bad guys have killed in an attempt to obtain it. The good guys are after it as well, in the guise of FBI Agents Crosby and Fields who are assigned to the bureau’s Art Crime Team.

The holy Shroud of Turin becomes a plot point, as does the legendary Fountain of Youth and the biblical Garden of Eden. The action takes place in Maryland, Missouri, and Virginia, as well as in Italy, India, and Bahrain. Grogan includes several important female characters in a novel with a bit too much stilted dialogue.

Retired Navy Capt. Dave Grogan

Overall, the book reads like something written in the 1930s, perhaps by Sax Rohmer, the English novelist who created Dr. Fu Manchu.  At one point Grogan writes, “Steve felt like a detective in a B movie.”

This is a B novel—more in the “boys own adventure” genre than a sophisticated thriller. Still, it was fun to read.

The author’s website is davidegrogan.com

–Bill McCloud