This preface is an attempt to add weight to the recommendation I am about to make. I urge you not to overlook Knitting New Scarves by Lynne Barr. I must own this book. This is even more significant on account of my 2006 scarf knitting overdose, from which I have not recovered.
When she designs Lynne Barr asks herself questions like, "What if I added short rows to create sharper edges, or eliminated all the curves to the right to create a scarf that would only spiral leftward...?" The designs in this book all share a "What if" quality, a playful approach to yarn and needles that is totally inspiring. So even if you don't need or want scarves, or scarf knitting, or even like the designs that much, this book is worthwile as a book of possibilities.
Although this is not exactly a beginner's book, I think most of the designs are doable for most knitters. Lynne appends a clearly written and photographed chapter of the techniques that come up in the book. These include how to add stitches to a work in progress, combining stitches from two needles, separating ribs to make tubes (a new one on me), knitting slits into fabric, short rowing, intarsia, and more.
Here are some examples of the designs in this book. They don't even scratch the surface of the wonder:
As much as I love Knitting New Scarves (by the way the publisher is soon releasing Knitting New Mittens and Gloves), that is how much I dislike Inspired Fair Isle Knits by Fiona Ellis. Ok, it's not that heinous, but the thing I like best about it is the author's name. Organized by the natural elements of water, air, fire, and earth (and can I say how sick I am of knitting books inspired by 'nature'?), Ellis' book uses garish colors to represent the elements and thick yarns to coarsen fair isle knitting. This is fair isle dumbed down.
The cover design, a huge thick muffler, is about the best in the book. Actually Ellis does have one idea here. In some of her designs she uses stranded knitting techniques to add color work to the edges of of a garment. I sort of like this wrap:
But in general, I hate giant fair isle patterning. Fair Isle is supposed to be worked to a fine gauge. Most of the designs in this book use DK to aran weight yarn (a few use sport), and you can see the grain of the knitting in the photos in a way that sets my teeth on edge. Plus, thick fair isle is impractical. Because the fabric is made of two strands of yarn, thick yarn becomes double thick and too warm to wear. Most of the designs are coarse looking, like these:
I doubt you can see the hideousness of the knitted grain in these photos, but they show up clearly in the book. Another fault is the lack of background on fair isle knitting and the lack of traditional examples (although examples might cast the current designs in a bad light). Ellis attempts to replace knitting history with folk tales loosely related to the patternings, but they are not very effective.
Skip this one.